Thursday, July 29, 2010

If you were doing a radio program on intelligence failures of the pre 9/11 era, would you call it "The Truthers Were Right"?

A bit of a shame, to say the least, that Aaro has decided to have a go at the William F Buckley line in McCarthy revisionism. Like trying to rehabilitate the reputation of Field-Marshall Haig (something which one historian in every single generation of right-wing farts to come out of Oxford has tried, always in the belief that they are doing something new and scandalous), McCarthy rehabilitationism is the sort of thing that wins you points in debating competitions - that is to say, you can make a sort of case, but the case has to be based on attack rather than defence, kicking a few holes in the oversimplified conventional wisdom on the subject and hoping that nobody looks too closely at the actual detail.

Basically, if you're doing McCarthy rehabilitation, you have to bang the table hard and shout that there were! communists! in the US government! and concentrate very hard on the fact that Alger Hiss and the Rosenbergs were actually guilty. You then basically shut up and hope that people will start arguing with you about McCarthy's methods and you've basically progressed to the next round, because you get to look all magnanimous in making concessions about the illiberal abuses of process in the prosecution of people who were, after all, basically guilty. You don't even need to wheel out the Barry Goldwater quote about extremism in the defence of liberty if you catch the judges' eye just right.

What you don't want to do if you're arguing the pro-McCarthy case, is let anyone take a look at what McCarthy actually believed. His most famous speech (the "conspiracy of infamy so black" one) is all about his assertion that Dean Acheson and General George Marshall had spent the previous twenty years undermining the USA for the benefit of Soviet Russia, and that Marshall in particular had sent tens of thousands of American troops to their deaths in this cause. In the language of 9/11 Truthers, McCarthy was a MIHOPper, who was certainly prepared to entertain theories that President Truman himself was a Soviet agent even if he disclaimed personal belief in them.

There certainly was Soviet espionage in the higher levels of the US Government in the 1950s. There certainly was a need for a thorough investigation of this. The fact that this vitally necessary investigation fell into the hands of an immoral and crazy conspiracy theorist is not something that anyone should be making any sorts of excuses for, and it wasn't a question of his "methods" - what McCarthy actually believed, was crazily wrong. There were plenty of anti-communists who were not wrong in the same way, and who hated McCarthy.

If Aaro did a documentary on the failure to find WMDs in Iraq, would he call it "George Galloway was right?". Or perhaps "Norman Baker MP was right?".

Footnote: an interesting detail from McCarthy's infamy speech:

It was Marshall, with Acheson and Vincent eagerly assisting, who created the China policy which, destroying China, robbed us of a great and friendly ally, a buffer against the Soviet imperialism with which we are now at war.

which just caught my attention, as Decent idol Henry "Scoop" Jackson was later obsessed with the possibility of an anti-Soviet alliance with China (a rich vein of embarrassing Scoop quotes, almost on a par with his colourful views on the subject of the Japanese).


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hmm . . . I may be a historian who's come out of Oxford, but I am in no sense (least of all the historiographical one) a right-winger, and I have also tried to help rehabilitate Haig. Except for Third Ypres. That was a screw-up.

Chris Williams

7/29/2010 10:06:00 AM  
Blogger John B said...

Re the original question: no, but if this were the year 2060, then maybe yes if I thought it'd make listeners more interested in Old History Stuff.

7/29/2010 10:10:00 AM  
Anonymous dd said...

Except for Third Ypres. That was a screw-up.

? Passchendale wasn't exactly an aberration or an inexplicable departure from the rest of the strategic doctrine, was it?

7/29/2010 10:53:00 AM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

I don't see any evidence that Aaro had any input into any part of the programme, though.

And agree with the thrust, but McCarthy was blowback from the political witchhunt that started well before, that via HUAC, Hoover's FBI etc. (See recent comments passim, poss. ad nauseam)

He's borne the brunt for all that ('McCarthyism') stuff, largely because he took the spycatching aspect of the witchhunt seriously, and turned it on the establishment. He thus got slapped down, once partisan interests in giving him free rein ceased to weigh so heavily in the balance.

Later this became convenient as a way to lay all the blame (for the Blacklist, etc) on him, thus putting it all down to - 'populist' paranoid conspiracy theorising!

In fact his sin was to take the dubious methods - including unfounded allegations of course - of the top-down (characteristically vague, loud and evidence-proof) Red Scare conspiracy theory, and apply them (madly, of course) to the field of counter-espionage.

It's also hard not to notice that in reading out this stuff, Aaro contradicts the weird account he gives in Poo-poo* Histories.

(* Witless, puerile, thus extra disrespectful, I hope irritating, and to me rather hilarious; cf. the deliberately and unrelentingly ridiculous schtick of the less classically witty Carry-Ons. A big raspberry to Aaro's pompous shite.)

7/29/2010 11:06:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes. All the others were "Do what the French need you to do, so that they do not lose the war - because then you will too." or "Attack the Central Powers in a way that will [and in fact did] cause them to lose the war." Third Ypres was an obvious "One more heave" attack.

Note that in this context I agree with Gary Sheffield's military revisionism of the war - and also with pretty much ever other military historian of the war with the possible exception of Robin Prior. I don't agree with Sheffield's political revisionism. WW1 was an imperialist war and a crime: but the British generals who fought it were not the idiots which the Alan Clark version of history has made them out to be.


7/29/2010 11:32:00 AM  
Anonymous dsquared said...

and also with pretty much ever other military historian of the war with the possible exception of Robin Prior

is "military" here meant to exclude Niall Ferguson (back when he was good) or has he changed his mind?

AISI the charge sheet against Haig is 1) strategic Luddite 2) Passchendale 3) callous about casualties. If we're agreed on 2) and split on 1), what about 3)? To bring it back to tangential relevance to Decency, isn't one of the reasons why general historians tend to take a much more negative view of Haig than military specialists the view that he was totally tone deaf to and ignorant of the domestic political angle to the war?

7/29/2010 11:43:00 AM  
Blogger ejh said...

I wouldn't use the term "Luddite" like that in the company of people with history degrees who've read EP Thompson. We'll get annoyed.

7/29/2010 02:29:00 PM  
Blogger AndyB said...

Luddite (n) A person who rebels against the imposition, by monied power, of new economic arrangements that threaten to emmiserate them.

word verification: credo

7/29/2010 02:33:00 PM  
Blogger Nathaniel Tapley said...

By the way, Alger Hiss was almost certainly not guilty of espionage. He almost certainly did, however, know Whittaker Chambers after 1937 (the date when he said their association stopped), and may have been part of a Marxist study group that had been infiltrated by Societ agents.

The concentration of right-wing historians on the VENONA decrypts - after every other aspect of their argument had been demolished - is especially ironic, given that any reasonable examination of the documents shows that they do not say what Weinstein and other say they say.

(I go into this in great and boring detail for those interested here: )

7/29/2010 02:38:00 PM  
Blogger jmc said...

In fact, Nathaniel Tapley is square on her regarding the Hiss Case. Evidence that has come out over the last ½ century indicates firmly that there is much more to the Hiss affair than meets the eye.
Rather more complete information re. the Hiss/Chambers imbroglio can be found on the Svetlana Chervonnaya web site, DocumentsTalk, which specializes in research by this outstanding Russian scholar about the espionage cases of the 1930s and 40s [ ].
For even more thorough coverage of every aspect of the case, do some research on the Alger Hiss web site @ [ ].

jim crawford
Westwood NJ

7/29/2010 07:53:00 PM  
Blogger Chardonnay Chap said...

I listened to the programme on Sunday, and was disappointed. There was a brief mention of Hiss and Nixon (an incredibly complex affair, as Jim Crawford says). IIRC, Nixon claimed that the prosecution of Hiss was the hardest he worked in his life - and Nixon was an obsessive. And speaking of Nixon brings me to my earlier post on this, which the BBC trailed as "David Aaronovitch thinks the unthinkable." Both the 1960 US Presidential candidates were anti-Communists (JFK even donated money to Nixon in 1954, IIRC). McCarthy wasn't shunned by all right-thinking people and the idea of communist infiltrators was mainstream. Given this, it's his lack of success that was remarkable. DA didn't duck that McCarthy jumped on a bandwagon. HUAC wasn't much to shout about, either.

I confess that I'm more than a little disappointed that DA doesn't seem bothered that some of those he fingered were Jewish (the Rosenbergs, Oppenheimer): he didn't stop to think, why them? It couldn't have been planted evidence, or prejudiced investigators or anything like that. Nor did the author of "Voodoo Histories" concern himself that McCarthy alleged that there was a great - widespread and yet wholly secret - conspiracy in government.

Points off the Beeb for not choosing the obvious theme tune.

7/29/2010 09:41:00 PM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

it's his lack of success that was remarkable.

Not that odd - victimising teachers, authors, scriptwriters is one thing, publicly denouncing politicians and officials is quite another. Even insofar as he was stopped-clock-accurate, he was carrying out counter-espionage in public.

DA didn't duck that McCarthy jumped on a bandwagon.

Again, there's no reason to think Aaro had any input to this programme, is there? But in any case, the writer(s) only gave HUAC (of blacklist fame) a couple of sentences, so not ducked but not exactly confronted either.

7/29/2010 10:22:00 PM  
Blogger Chardonnay Chap said...

Tim, but he claimed there was a huge conspiracy, yet he proved almost nothing. That's a big failure.

DA is mostly a writer. Radio 4 has a tight budget. I don't believe they'd hire a secret team of writers and have him faux-present a programme as his own. I see no reason not to believe it was all his own work. McCarthy was a nut: but no one appreciated how the US had changed since WWI. The small state was dead.

7/29/2010 10:30:00 PM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

1. Yeah, point being his failure is not surprising. (I don't think I've missed any irony here, have I?)

2. Come to think of it does sound a bit conspiranoid. Hasty, categorical allegations of a secret(?) team of writers, the faux(?)-presenting, er, the vast underground lair...

And what's more the two general facts you cite are true. (Though 'Aaro mostly a writer' may not be for long - he's been impinging on my ears with increasing frequency. And 'tight budget' is not quite the same as 'reduced to hiring amateur one-man-bands', but still.)

And those general facts could indeed suggest in a nebulous way that Aaro has: completely altered his position from the one provided in VH; presumably(?) trawled through a load of historical documents not mentioned in VH; perhaps also interviewed a bunch of people - resisting the temptation to include his voice asking any questions; and mastered the Radio Four style manual for a one-off foray into scriptwriting to work it all up into the finished product.

But then looking at the only concrete evidence to hand - the blurb - I find:

we now know...We reveal that...We explore why...We also examine...Finally, we explore..., then, at the end Dave is introduced: Hearing from former FBI [etc], David Aaronovitch...tells the untold story...

So now I don't know what to think. This conspiracy research lark is bloody confusing.

But in the end, I concede that your theory must be correct, since R4 could never be so devious as to not clearly state: "DA has only got a gig as a presenter, not also as a researcher/interviewer or scriptwriter."

(Yeah, well, sorry, not a morning person.)

7/30/2010 07:35:00 AM  
Anonymous organic cheeseboard said...

from personal experience of having been consulted last year, r4 docs of this type will have some input from the presenter but they're mostly written by others, who do research by talking to academics and the like.

it does seem odd with voodoo histories in mind.

7/30/2010 07:41:00 AM  
Blogger The Rioja Kid said...

I think that he's just become the go-to guy for things about "conspiracy", because he's associated with them in someone's mental card index, not with any real lively attention to his thesis, just a vague association that the two things are related. It's like that time they got Terry Waite to do a program about cast iron radiators. (this never happened)

7/30/2010 11:51:00 AM  
Anonymous skidmarx said...

Should we expect the forthcoming Radio 4 series on "useful Idiots" to be another DA/Decency production?

7/30/2010 11:57:00 AM  

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