In this riveting and brilliant book, John V. Fleming, professor emeritus of literature at Princeton, sheds light on four books that played a major role in educating Americans about the reality of Communism and the necessity of engaging in a Cold War against the Soviet Union. As Fleming writes, the Cold War “at its heart was a conflict of competing social and political visions,” and these books contributed to “a decisive victory for anti-Communism.”
To many, back in the 1940s and early 1950s, the importance of the struggle was far from apparent. When these books were first published, the nation was in the throes of a wartime alliance with the USSR, to encourage acceptance of which the Roosevelt administration and the media promoted a love affair with Joseph Stalin. The Soviet dictator was portrayed as a distant, kind uncle, and the system under which his people suffered was often depicted as a democracy just like the United States.
Fleming’s handling of the four books — Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon (1940), Jan Valtin’s Out of the Night (1941), Victor Kravchenko’s I Chose Freedom (1946), and, most influential of all, Whittaker Chambers’s Witness (1952) — is remarkable for the author’s ability to give them all a new reading, and to examine the influence they had in the West. One must recall that, in those days, few Americans had any understanding of what it was like in the Soviet Union. A few outspoken and largely ignored liberal anti-Communist intellectuals — including Sidney Hook, the editors of the social-democratic New Leader, émigré writers like David Dallin, and others like Isaac Don Levine and Eugene Lyons — knew the truth and struggled hard to alert their countrymen, but they regularly came up against a stone wall.
All this would change once these four books were published and quickly became national bestsellers. What was unique about the four authors was that all of them had been committed Communists and knew too well what it meant to be part of Stalin’s cadre in different parts of Europe. Some had been not only party members but part of Stalin’s espionage apparatus. Kravchenko had been a Red Army captain, and Chambers had famously been part of a spy network in the U.S. These four men were among the first to defect and to risk their lives in the effort to tell the truth to a world that did not want to hear it. In telling their story anew, and evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of their efforts, Fleming both rescues the less known of them from oblivion and encourages today’s readers to turn to their volumes.
Koestler’s novel of the Soviet purge trials is still taught in many university classes, and his examination of the thoughts of those condemned to die as “enemies of the people” by Stalin holds up to this day. The novel’s victim, the former persecutor Nicholas Rubashov, rationalizes his own pending doom in terms of the necessity to build Communism — to keep the dream alive, even if he knows it is a total lie. He has himself presided over the party’s betrayal of its rank-and-file and thrown people close to him to the wolves, all in the name of historical necessity. Fleming calls it “an internal compulsion within the psychology of Bolshevism itself”: Rubashov can hardly complain when the party decides it is his own turn to make the ultimate sacrifice.
The reality of Stalin’s USSR may be common knowledge now, but one must recall that Koestler’s writing appeared when leading Americans told their countrymen the purge trials were justified, since Stalin needed to get rid of fifth columnists trying to destroy the socialist state. Fleming reminds us that Koestler’s book was preceded by numerous defenses of the purge trials, such as Lion Feuchtwanger’s now-forgotten Moscow 1937, which he describes as the most “nauseating” of the bunch. Koestler’s book, he writes, succeeded in raising moral questions that “are enduring and profound.” He shows the major debate its publication produced in France, and the calumny to which Koestler was subjected by the powerful French Communist party.
Unlike Koestler, Richard Krebs — who wrote under the pseudonym Jan Valtin — was unknown before his book appeared, and is now completely forgotten. Yet, as Fleming writes, Out of the Night “remains one of the most remarkable books in the library of anti-Communism,” and its impact reveals “an important but imperfectly understood moment in the spiritual life of America on the brink of World War II.” Krebs was a Red street fighter in Hamburg in 1923, worked as a Comintern agent in Europe, and attended the Lenin School in Moscow to learn the craft of espionage. Arriving in the U.S. in 1926, he attacked a tailor whom he said he was ordered to kill by the Comintern, was arrested and convicted, and served time in San Quentin. He was deported, but later defected; he returned to the U.S. in 1938.
Krebs’s book became an overnight hit; excerpted in Reader’s Digest as well as Life, it was also issued in a special edition by the Book-of-the-Month Club. The author’s account of his strange life, some of its claims highly dubious and others undoubtedly true, did much to portray vividly the conspiratorial nature of international Communism. Valtin exposed the importance of the Comintern to the Soviet Union, the methods by which the party kept its cadre in line, and the ways in which Moscow’s policy contributed to Hitler’s victory in Germany. Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, he argued, were both evil, totalitarian regimes.
All these propositions are accepted without argument today, except perhaps among the Nation magazine crowd, but Fleming reminds us that, at the time, they were seen as “Red-baiting fictions” as well as a “sin against the Holy Ghost.” For a time, it even appeared that Valtin’s book would become a major Hollywood film, but the Hollywood Reds, then in their prime, blocked it. The CP screenwriter who later broke the blacklist, Dalton Trumbo — who is heralded today as an advocate for freedom of speech — bragged how he and his comrades had used their influence to prevent Valtin’s book and other “untrue” and “reactionary” anti-Communist books from being made into movies.
Victor Kravchenko, too, is forgotten, but when he announced his defection in April 1944, it made the front pages. Most important, he accused the Soviets of having a two-faced foreign policy, one that was not a genuine collaboration with the West, and he denounced the Soviet state for violating the civil liberties of Soviet citizens. Lend-Lease aid to the Soviets, he also said, involved not only the transfer of agreed-upon goods, but Soviet military and industrial espionage. An NKVD team, he revealed, ran the Washington office of the Soviet Lend-Lease authority. Kravchenko’s book was, Fleming notes, “an eyewitness account of important events spanning the whole history of Bolshevik power, made by a Russian Communist of consequence, experience, and authority,” which accounts for why Stalin’s supporters launched an all-out propaganda campaign to destroy Kravchenko’s analysis and reputation.
The book became especially important in post-war France, where Kravchenko’s bona fides and story were challenged by the vast apparatus of CP members and fellow-traveling intellectuals. Fleming traces the fascinating experience Kravchenko had in Paris, where he sued one of his major detractors and, after a lengthy trial, won damages, despite the attempt of Stalinist intellectuals to prove that no gulag existed in the worker’s paradise. He became, Fleming writes, “the basest villain in the history of Soviet Communism . . . before the soon-to-be demonized Marshal Tito.”
Readers of NR undoubtedly know far more about Whittaker Chambers than the average American reader does. Yet Fleming’s reading of Witness, which he calls “the greatest American masterpiece of literary anti-Communism,” reveals threads and concepts that most readers, even the very knowledgeable, will not have found on their own. Using the skills he acquired as a professor teaching medieval literature, Fleming points out references to classical texts throughout the book, poetic allusions most people ignore or skip through. He also devotes serious attention to its religious theme, and correctly excoriates the late critic and social-democratic activist Irving Howe for treating the book as travesty on this issue. For Howe and others, Chambers had moved away from rationality when he turned to Quakerism. Fleming notes that of all the reviewers in the mainstream press, only Sidney Hook gave Chambers’s book the respect it deserved.
Fleming writes that Chambers’s strength was to present “so many of his onetime Communist friends and acquaintances as interesting and appealing people, often quirky and gently risible.” His ability to do this only reinforced the basic truth of his story. He was able to draw a distinction between a sin and the sinner, doing so, Fleming writes, better than even Augustine could.
Fleming’s book ends with the condolence telegram Arthur Koestler sent to National Review upon Chambers’s death. Chambers, Koestler wrote, “was the most misunderstood person of our time. . . . He knowingly committed moral suicide to atone for the guilt of our generation. . . . The witness is gone, the testimony will stand.” Thanks to John V. Fleming’s masterly account, we can rediscover these four books, and learn what service Chambers and the other three authors rendered to those who sought freedom from tyranny.
– Mr. Radosh, adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute, is author of Commies: A Journey Through the Old Left, the New Left, and the Leftover Left and other books.