Diana West vs. History

warRonald Radosh’s riposte to Diana West fantasies about Soviet control over American foreign and military policy during World War II is most welcome and very well done. It is depressing that West’s nonsense finds some fans. Yet error and Radosh’s convincing criticism draws welcome attention to the complexity of World War II and of the alliance of the Western democracies with the Soviet Union. Winston Churchill, who as much as any one person saved Western civilization in 1940 and 1941, put it best. When asked how he, whose political career was bound up with anticommunism since he advocated armed intervention to overthrow the new Bolshevik regime in 1917-1918, could support an alliance with Stalin he famously replied: “If Hitler invaded Hell, I would rise in the House of Commons to make a speech in favor of the devil.” In 1941, Hitler invaded the Hell of Stalin’s Russia and Churchill made a remarkable speech on the BBC to offer an alliance with the previous Soviet foe.

As a historian of modern German history, including the Nazi era, I would add the following by drawing on a vast and excellent scholarship by historians of Germany and Europe that West appears to have ignored.

1.  The idea that the United States was dominated by the Soviet Union and entered World War II as a result of that influence was a core theme of Nazi propaganda. The Nazis, of course, asserted that an international Jewish conspiracy had created the alliance between the Americans and the British with the Soviet Union. The Nazis were particularly enraged at Franklin Roosevelt who, they believed, had robbed them of the chance to win the war in Europe. (For the relevant material see my book The Jewish Enemy:  Nazi Propaganda during World War II and the Holocaust.)  In spring 1945, Joseph Goebbels, Nazi Germany’s Minister of Propaganda, attacked the “Anglo-Saxon powers,” the United States and Great Britain for, in effect, stabbing Nazi Germany in the back as it was fighting the “Jewish Bolshevik” threat. West’s argument about Soviet domination over American policy evokes disturbing parallels to the Nazi interpretation of World War II.

2.  Peter Hoffmann, the leading historian of the German resistance to Hitler, makes clear that Klaus von Stauffenberg, the leader of the attempted anti-Nazi coup of July 20, 1933, and his fellow conspirators did not have the support of the vast majority of the German officer corps. Indeed, as historians Omer Bartov, Christopher Browning, Saul Friedlander among others in this country, and a host of historians in Germany in recent decades such as Horst Boog, Ulrich Herbert, Manfred Messerschmidt and Juergen Foerster have overwhelmingly demonstrated, the German general staff and officer corps distinguished itself not only by its criminality in fighting a racial war of extermination on the Eastern Front but also by its fanatical determination to fight the war to the very last day. West’s suggestion that the United States or Britain should have had anything to do with the German army after its participation in the Holocaust and these massive crimes is grotesque. The generals and senior officers belonged in war crimes trials, not in a new alliance with the Western democracies. As it was, too many of them successfully avoided trial and punishment in the postwar years. The dismantling of the German military was a precondition for peace and stability in postwar Europe.

In making this suggestion of an alliance with remnants of the Nazi regime, West unintentionally also echoes Soviet propaganda following World War II. It was the Soviet Union, the Communist states and Communist parties in Europe who claimed that West Germany and the American-led NATO alliance were simply a new version of the former “fascist” anticommunism of the Nazi regime. The leaders of the postwar alliance—Truman, Marshall, Eisenhower, Acheson among others—all understood that the defeat and definitive end of Nazism as a political force was a precondition for an effective containment of Communism in the Cold War. Joseph McCarthy didn’t understand that distinction. Perhaps Diana West does not either.

3.  Some ex-Nazi intelligence officers paraded their anticommunist credentials and supposed knowledge of the Soviet Union after the war and some were, for a time, hired by the CIA. Richard Breitman, Norman Goda and Timothy Naftali’s work on US intelligence and the Nazis offers important material on these issues. The results of the “intelligence” about the Soviet Union offered by the ex-Nazi was often embarrassingly stupid. American intelligence officials concluded that their supposed knowledge of the Communist regimes was generally worthless.

4.  There is a shameless quality to the arguments then and since by the isolationist right in the United States. Having fought Roosevelt’s efforts to warn early on about Hitler’s danger and to intervene in the European war the “isolationists” then attacked him—and Truman—for the fact that the Red Army was in Berlin. Had Roosevelt not intervened in the war, it would likely have ended with the Red Army on the coast of France. Had the United States intervened earlier, the Red Army might have been at the Soviet-Polish border in May 1945.

5.  Some official Soviet histories of World War II argue that the only reason the US entered the European war was to prevent the Soviet Union from expanding further or, in communist terminology, to prevent “revolutionary” developments in Western Europe as well. Apparently those Soviet historians had not been informed that in reality Roosevelt was Stalin’s stooge. In fact, as Robert Dallek, Warren Kimball and Gerhard Weinberg have all pointed out, American entry into the war in Europe had everything to do with the defense of American national security and, initially preventing the defeat of Britain in 1940.  One implication of West’s argument is that the United States should not have intervened in World War II in Europe and thus should have stood by passively as Nazi Germany dominated Europe and, as Weinberg and Goda have pointed out and as Admirals of the United States Navy understood by 1939, posed a direct threat to the continental United States. What non-intervention in a war against a regime of such radical evil and huge global ambitions had and has to do with conservatism immersed in the Western moral and political tradition is hard to discern.

We scholars often complain that what we do does not reach a broad enough audience, that much of what we do is miscontrued and that the great simplifiers have an easier time finding a mass echo. West’s claims not only fly in the face of the work of historians of Soviet espionage. They also display striking ignorance of the findings of many historians of both World War II, Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union and the Cold War in Europe. Ronald Radosh deserves the congratulations and thanks from many fellow historians who have worked for decades to write accurately and truthfully about these events. He has done the kind of thing that distinguished historians of the first rank need to do when our discipline is attacked because it presents work that unsettles some conventional wisdom or another.

Dr. Jeffrey Herf is a professor of modern European history at the University of Maryland specializing in 20th century Germany. He is the author of Divided Memory: The Nazi Past in the Two Germanys (Harvard University Press), War By Other Means: Soviet Power, West German Resistance and the Battle of the Euromissiles (Free Press) and Reactionary Modernism: Technology, Culture and Politics in Weimar and the Third Reich (Cambridge University Press).

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  • Ernst Lindenberg

    So why didn’t Roosevelt do anything to help Finland in winter 1939-40 when this tiny democratic country was viciously attacked by Stalin’s Red Army? Instead the documents have shown that Roosevelt’s cabinet aided Stalin by sending him important material during that winter.

    • Anon

      A bit recursive, but:

      America did not come to European war on the whim of FDR but rather as a result of Hitler declaring war on America

      Also it did not help that US land army was downsized post WWI and only started rebuilding during initial stages of WWII

  • Peter B

    This is not meant as an exhaustive analysis of either West’s book or her critics’ arguments. Professor Herf makes some valid criticisms of West’s work, but neither he nor Radosh are completely in the right either.

    The fact that international or national socialist propaganda made a particular claim is certainly two strikes against it, but doesn’t ipso facto make it false. Many of the bad things the Nazis said about the Communists, and vice versa, were true. It isn’t unknown for propagandists to say things that are true; it has even happened that they tell truths accidentally while being ignorant of relevant facts. So part of the job of historians is to sort that out. The relevant question about West is: did she do so, or does her ideology drive the narrative?

    It is a truism in strategic and tactical planning that one doesn’t plan for the enemies intentions but for his capabilities, and there are certainly facts that buttress West’s claims of Soviet capbility of exerting influence on US planning during and after WWII.

    There was indeed a Soviet conspiracy: The CPUSA was a wholly owned subsidiary of Soviet intelligence; its members both performed espionage themselves, and acted in support of professional operations run by the NKVD and GRU.

    Soviet agents entered the Federal Government in large numbers with the New Deal, some entering the Federal Civil Service and others coming in as non-Civil Service staff during Roosevelt’s long presidency.

    Some of these agents were in a position to exert real influence. Alger Hiss’s virtually unlimited Yalta acess to an ill and failing Roosevelt certainly comes to mind. Harry Hopkins I will discuss in a minute.

    The questions then become: Did the USSR run some of these agents as agents of influence, or was their role purely intelligence gathering? That is the sort of question that might be answered fairly objectively from Soviet archives, though given their extent and current difficulties of access, an absence of evidence certainly doesn’t constitute evidence of absence. The really critical question, “If they were intended as agents of influence, was their influence successful?” is a very difficult one to answer.

    Certainly, General George C. Marshall’s troubling assertion about Harry Hopkins needs a very full treatment: “Hopkins’s job with the president was to represent the Russian interests. My job was to represent the American interests.”

    Unfortunately, with Harry Hopkins, West’s work does show weaknesses of the kind that often lead amateur historians into errors that a professional historian, with years in the field wouldn’t make. (Professionals have their own errors, and some of those have been exposed by amateurs.)

    West relies on Eduard Marks’ analyis of Gordievsky on Akhmerov etc., and on Marks’ assertion that Hopkins was indeed the agent referred to in Soviet archives as “Source 19.” But according to Radosh, Marks retracted that claim (IIRC Radosh said in a presentation at a conference) near the end of his life — a point which West doesn’t address. While she paints a very worrisome picture of Hopkins’ ideology, the assertion that Hopkins was not merely a fellow traveller but a conscious agent of influence is important to her thesis. West needs to either acknowledge the point and deal with its implications for her argument or demonstrate that Marks’ retraction of the claim was erroneous.

    That being said, West was also accused, I think by Radosh, of making a mistake regarding Iskhak Akhmerov, whose WWII tour of duty in the USA began too late to have made him Hopkins’ putative contact or controller. But in this, Radosh may himself be sloppy at best. West actually follows Breindel and Romerstein, who believe that Akhmerov and Hopkins connected during Akhmerov’s first US tour in the 1930s.

    Another weakness of Radosh’s critique lies in the issue of Hopkins and secret uranium shipments to the Soviets.

    Radosh shows that General Groves, who headed the Manhattan project, responded to Soviet pressure for nuclear material by sending weak and contaminated uranium. But Radosh fails to anwer West’s further, and apparently well documented claim: that Lend-Lease was used as cover by Harry Hopkins to supply the Russians with further nuclear related materiel, including industrial scale quantities of the aluminum tubing critical to a uranium enrichment plant, in a secret operation which Groves didn’t know about.

    Lend-Lease itself is a thorny issue. West asserts that the whole program heavily favored Soviet interests. Certainly without Lend-Lease supplied equipment, the post WWII Soviet takeover of Eastern Europe would have been much harder. On the other hand, it sure as hell benefited the Western Allies to have the USSR killing Germans and shredding the Nazi war machine, and that could not have been achieved without Lend-Lease.

    While West rightly mocks the Western dupes who believed that Stalingrad meant that “the OGPU doesn’t exist,” the Soviet victory there cost the Germans, according to Wikipedia “…from 500,000 to 850,000 casualties (killed, wounded, captured) among all branches of the German armed forces and its allies, many of them POWs who died in Soviet captivity between 1943 and 1955. Of the 91,000 German POWs taken at Stalingrad, 27,000 died within weeks and only 5-6,000 returned to Germany by 1955. The remainder of the POWs died in Soviet captivity.”

    The battle of Kursk – which West doesn’t even mention – cost the Germans another 45,000 killed or MIA and over 100,000 wounded, plus over 700 tanks. Between those two battles alone, the Axis lost over a million men who, without the Eastern Front, would have been available for the war in the West.

    Herf makes a convincing case that the anti-Nazi underground in Germany could not have delivered the goods that would have made West’s arguments about the European campaign more plausible.

    While West also downplays the real American strategic interests in Europe and the Pacifice, she does raise some very interesting questions on whether Soviet influence both in Tokyo and Washington might have influenced the launching of the attack on Pearl Harbor. That attack brought the US into the war much sooner than would otherwise have been the case; that was indeed to the USSR’s benefit. But I think that West fails to appreciate that it really did take the US years to produce the hardware and train enough men for the European and Pacific wars. A later American entry into the war would have delayed that, too.

    West is correct in asking what influence the USSR’s extensive penetration of the US had on the conduct and outcome of WWII. She is also correct that the the Western Allies on the one hand, and the USSR on the othe had fundamentally different war aims, that the USSR intended to supplant the Nazis and in fact succeeded in doing so in post WWII Europe.

    But maybe Roosevelt’s and Churchill’s approach was correct, too: the Nazis had to be defeated, and it couldn’t have been done without the USSR.

  • RCraigen

    Cute title, Mr. Herf. I have to admit it took me some time to catch the reference to a brief Jonah Goldberg pieceRadosh v. the Historians“, in which Jonah Goldberg weighs in on Ron’s side, or rather pointing out that Radosh was catching some grief for writing in favour of his book Liberal Fascism. In fact, Radosh’s review was faint praise, pulling out one of the brushes he is using here to paint Ms. West — of Goldberg’s book he writes, “…he strains and pushes his evidence too far”.