In Denial: Historians, Communism and Espionage, by John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr, San Francisco: Encounter Books, 300 pages, $25.95
In 1983 the Indiana University historian Robert F. Byrnes collected essays from 35 experts on the Soviet Union -- the cream of American academia -- in a book titled After Brezhnev. Their conclusion: Any U.S. thought of winning the Cold War was a pipe dream. "The Soviet Union is going to remain a stable state, with a very stable, conservative, immobile government," Byrnes said in an interview, summing up the book. "We don't see any collapse or weakening of the Soviet system."
Barely six years later, the Soviet empire began falling apart. By 1991 it had vanished from the face of the earth. Did Professor Byrnes call a press conference to offer an apology for the collective stupidity of his colleagues, or for his part in recording it? Did he edit a new work titled Gosh, We Didn't Know Our Ass From Our Elbow? Hardly. Being part of the American chattering class means never having to say you're sorry.
Journalism, academia, policy wonkery: They all maintain well-oiled Orwellian memory holes, into which errors vanish without a trace. Stern pronouncements are hurled down like thunderbolts from Zeus, and, like Zeus, their authors are totally unaccountable to mere human beings. Time's Strobe Talbott decreed in 1982 that it was "wishful thinking to predict that international Communism some day will either self-destruct or so exhaust itself in internecine conflict that other nations will no longer be threatened." A Wall Street analyst who misjudged a stock so badly would find himself living under a bridge, if not sharing a cell with Martha Stewart. But Talbott instead became Bill Clinton's deputy secretary of state, where he could apply his perspicacious geopolitical perceptual powers to Osama bin Laden.
One of the most striking revelations in the exposure of the Jayson Blair disaster at The New York Times was his fabrication of an entire visit to the West Virginia farm of POW Jessica Lynch's family, including detailed descriptions of rivers and cattle herds that did not exist. Lynch's parents read the story, laughed at the ludicrous falsehoods, but made no attempt to correct them. It never occurred to them that there was any point. Anybody who reads papers or watches television news knows how rare corrections are.
That's especially true when the mistake is not a discrete, concrete fact like a misspelled name but a broader error of perspective or analysis. It took decades for the Times to admit that the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporting of its Stalin-era Moscow bureau chief, Walter Duranty, was delusionary drivel. Even so, his Pulitzer stands. And the Times has yet to bite the bullet on its correspondent Herbert J. Matthews, the clueless Castro groupie who wrote that the comandante was winning his guerrilla war in Cuba at a time when he actually commanded fewer than 20 men.
Sometimes the refusal to confront errors is simple hubris. But often it masks a queasy reluctance to start down a path of self-examination, for fear of where it will lead. During the final days of the 1990 election in Nicaragua, ABC News released the results of a poll showing the ruling Sandinista Party ahead by 16 percentage points. "For the Bush Administration and the Reagan Administration before it, the poll hints at a simple truth: After years of trying to get rid of the Sandinistas, there is not much to show for their efforts," Peter Jennings gravely informed his viewers. But a few days later, the Sandinistas lost -- by 14 percentage points. The "simple truth" was really that the poll, like so much of what ABC and other American news media outlets had been reporting from Nicaragua for the previous decade, was utterly, dumbfoundingly, whoppingly wrong. But if you think that triggered a frenzy of soul searching at ABC -- about how the poll could have been so mistaken, about how none of the network's reporters sensed anything askew -- then guess again. Instead, Jennings dismissed the subject the next day with a single smirking reference to the inscrutability of Nicaraguans.
What went unreported was a research project conducted during the election by the University of Michigan, which by deploying various groups of student pollsters discovered that Nicaraguans mistrusted foreigners, presumed them active allies of the Sandinistas, and persistently lied to them. That fact had calamitous implications not only for what reporters had been writing about Nicaragua in the previous decade but for the reporters themselves. What had they done to make Nicaraguans view them as a foreign auxiliary of the Sandinista Party? Could it be that journalists covering Nicaragua had a (gasp!) ideological bias in favor of the Sandinistas? And could it be a coincidence that you're probably reading about this study for the first time?
The end of the Cold War has produced many such numbing silences. The speed with which the Soviet empire imploded and the economic ruin and popular revulsion that were revealed have made it clear that baby boomer intellectuals and journalists, viewing the world through the distorted lens of Vietnam, overwhelmingly got it wrong. Peasants ate less and were slaughtered more on the other side of the Iron Curtain; the jails were fuller; the KGB's list was a lot longer and a lot deadlier than Joe McCarthy's. A team of French historians calculated the worldwide death toll of communism during the 20th century at more than 93 million. When Hoover Institution historian Robert Conquest used newly available data from the Soviet Union to update The Great Terror, his account of Stalin's murderous purges of the 1930s, his publishers asked for a new title. "How about I Told You So, You Fucking Fools?" Conquest suggested.
The Conquest anecdote comes from In Denial: Historians, Communism and Espionage, an improbably riveting dispatch from the battlefields of historiography by scholars John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr.
Chilling and often perversely funny, it details the intellectual sleight of hand to which many American historians of communism and the Soviet Union have resorted as newly revealed archives in Moscow and Washington suggest they were, well, fucking fools.
Their efforts haven't been very successful. As Haynes and Klehr note, the world's final redoubt of communism is not Havana or Pyongyang but American college campuses: "The nostalgic afterlife of communism in the United States has outlived most of the real Communist regimes around the world....A sizable cadre of American intellectuals now openly applaud and apologize for one of the bloodiest ideologies of human history, and instead of being treated as pariahs, they hold distinguished positions in American higher education and cultural life."
Bold words, especially in academia, where suggesting somebody has communist sympathies -- even if he's carrying a bloody hammer and sickle in one hand and Trotsky's severed head in the other -- instantly draws gleeful cries of "McCarthyism!" I say, if this be blacklisting, make the most of it:
� Miami University's Robert W. Thurston, in his 1996 book Life and Terror in Stalin's Russia, rejects the overwhelming evidence that Stalin's purges took the lives of millions. He concedes only 681,692 executions in the years 1937 and 1938, and a mere 2.5 million arrests. Even using those low-ball figures, that means that nearly one of every 20 adult Soviet males went to prison and that more than 900 of them were executed per day. Nonetheless, Thurston says Stalin has gotten a bad rap: There was no "mass terror...extensive fear did not exist...[and] Stalin was not guilty of mass first-degree murder."
� Theodore Von Laue, a professor emeritus of history at Clark University, goes further in a 1999 essay in The Historian. He says it's the damnable Russian peasantry that ought to be begging poor Stalin for forgiveness: "He supervised the near-chaotic transformation of peasant Eurasia into an urban, industrialized superpower under unprecedented adversities. Though his achievements were at the cost of exorbitant sacrifice of human beings and natural resources, they were on a scale commensurate with the cruelty of two world wars. With the heroic help of his uncomprehending people, Stalin provided his country, still highly vulnerable, with a territorial security absent in all history." And Stalin was no mere poet, Von Laue adds, but a damn fine technocrat too: "The sophisticated design of Soviet totalitarianism has perhaps not been sufficiently appre-ciated."