Sunday, March 1, 2015

Historians Seek Cold War Data

Historians exploring the Cold War era face a double challenge when trying to collect accurate and reliable evidence.

First, there are the missing or unavailable data: many items located in various archives are still categorized as ‘secret’ or ‘confidential’ - and historians are not permitted to inspect such documents. Even invoking the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), a bill sponsored by Donald Rumsfeld and voted into law by Congress, isn’t enough to force disclosure of these texts. Documents vital to national security are normally kept classified, but one wonders about FBI memos from the 1940s. Such papers can hardly be essential to national security almost seventy years later, but they would have historically relevant information.

Beyond those files which are not disclosed are those which have simply disappeared. In the various archives of the federal government, evidence is simply and unaccountably missing: documents which are known to have detailed the Soviet espionage network which existed inside the United States. Who removed them, presumably in order to destroy them, and why? Whoever did it must have had high-level security clearances, or had expertise in circumventing or cracking the security systems around such documents.

Second, a sea of misinformation and urban legend has filled the void created by missing or unavailable evidence. Where the facts are not known, fictions are created, either by well-meaning speculation in the new media, or by intentional misdirection via the Soviet operatives inside the United States. The great historical irony is that fables created to hide the spy network have outlived that network by more than a quarter of a century.

As historian M. Stanton Evans, also known as “Stan” Evans, notes, “some of these stories are simply fabrications.” Invented narratives are filled with details of things which various Americans or Soviets “supposedly said, or did, that can’t be confirmed from credible records.”

Evans points out that “in particular, there seems to have been a cottage industry that cranked out purported statements by” various political leaders. These statements are designed to credit or discredit, to polish or tarnish, the reputations of these politicians by making them seem variously wise or foolish. But such statements “have no known valid basis.” One example is a purported

comment that welcomed the support of the Communist Party in the Wisconsin Republican primary of 1946 against Sen. Robert M. La Follette Jr. Nobody has ever been able to verify this quote, despite a considerable effort to do so, and it is almost certainly bogus.

Despite the bizarre nature of the alleged statement, and despite the fact that there is no verifiable source for it, “it has been recycled many times in treatments of” Cold War political debate.

The organized disinformation campaign, designed to confuse the public about Soviet tactics and intentions, had other instruments in addition to the fabricated quotes. “On top of such inventions, and more common, are episodes from” the political narratives of the time, which are partially factual, but either spun and interpreted so as to play into the hands of the Soviet attempt to discredit American leaders, or which omit central elements.

These omissions allow for narratives to be told “that did in fact occur but are presented in such a way as to be unrecognizable to anyone somewhat familiar with the record.” Many Cold War “factoids are of this nature, many resulting from the work of the Tydings panel, fons et origo of countless errors.”

While much of this is the product of a malicious Soviet effort, other aspects of Cold War mythology

are just plain mistakes, some fairly obvious, some more subtle and harder to disentangle. These often stem from jaw-dropping ignorance of the subject matter.

Good-natured and well-intentioned, the occasional errors of reporters and journalists are usually quickly corrected. But concerning Cold War events, the correctives are sometimes documents still under lock and key as “classified,” or are simply missing, having been purloined from the archives. In the absence of any accurate data, these errors live on, being naively quoted or reprinted, year after year. Such errors shape the characterizations of

happenings in the Cold War or of American history and institutions. A few such miscues are of serious import, some merely goofy, but all add to the smog bank that veils the story.

During the Cold War era, both part of the federal legislature - the House and the Senate - formed various committees to protect the nation from the activities of the Soviet espionage network. It is an important feature of the Constitution that each chamber of Congress function independently and separately from the other: this ensures the “check and balance” needed so that both sides can balance or correct the other.

Yet this relatively simple concept of government was mangled by those who sold Cold War fiction as fact. Stan Evans writes:

We are informed, for instance, by two of the nation’s leading dailies — the Los Angeles Times and Washington Post — that there was once a weird mutant entity of the U.S. government.

This “mutant” was created when these newspapers published stories which reported that a senator was the leader of the

“House Un-American Activities Committee.” It seems inconceivable, but is obviously so, that there are people writing for major papers who don’t know we have a bicameral legislative system, so that a senator wouldn’t head a House committee. And while such bloopers are amusing, they can have effects that historically speaking aren’t so funny.

From someone employed to be knowledgeable about United States government and politics, such an gaffe is breathtaking. Yet historians are forced to confront such error-ridden texts. It is difficult, in the face of such lamentable sources, to construct accurate accounts of the Cold War era.

The Los Angeles Times printed its story about a senator leading a House committee on December 29, 2002. The Washington Post did the same on July 18, 2004. Stan Evans collects and identifies these quotes about the Senate’s House Un-American Activities Committee. A third newspaper managed to print this oxymoron on August 11, 1999, when the New York Times defined ‘HUAC’ as a senator’s group.

If the public record contains errors as basic as muddling the Senate and the House of Representatives, it is to be expected that historians will have a difficult task in attempting to document the Soviet espionage network inside the United States, and in trying to map its infiltration of the federal government.