Putin’s President — Sorry, Precedent by Stephen Schwartz

The Weekly Standard Blog January 9, 2017

On Sunday, January 8, an editorial in The Guardian pointed out correctly, “whatever else there is to say about Russia’s alleged involvement in the 2016 US election, do not make the mistake of saying that such a thing is unprecedented—because it is not.” Indeed, anyone who thinks there is no parallel for the charge of foreign meddling against Vladimir Putin betrays a deep ignorance of modern history.

Russian interference abroad dates from the tsarist era, but the grasp of the Russian bear was extended dramatically after the Communist Revolution of 1917, the dolorous centenary of which approaches. Under Soviet communism, America was designated quickly as the epicenter of capitalist power and the ultimate foe. As Russian governance is bureaucratically rigid, with state decisions based on long-established norms, it should be no surprise to see that “active measures” against Moscow’s adversaries continued despite the fall of the Soviet empire.

The Russian hand in American leftist politics was visible and distinctive already by 1919, as soon as pro-Soviet Communist groups had been organized on our shores. No previous radical movement in this country owed its financing or loyalty to a foreign government. Nor did any earlier protest organization carry out periodic membership purges or maintain an underground apparatus and a military section, as required of American Communists by the Communist International or Comintern.

In the hundred years since the Bolshevik coup in St. Petersburg the Russian regime and its agencies consummated a series of operations aimed mainly at undermining the United States, some of which were breathtaking in their audacity and success. For example, the Russian use of business relationships to gain influence is hardly new. The late Armand Hammer, creator of Occidental Petroleum Corp., was designated by Lenin himself as a favored capitalist agent for the Russians.

Nor is the manipulation of protest parties new. In 1924, a third “Progressive” Party ran Senator Robert M. LaFollette, a Wisconsin Republican, as an alternative presidential candidate to the successful Republican incumbent, Calvin Coolidge, and the Democrat John W. Davis. LaFollette received nearly five million votes, or 17 percent of the total, but won only his home state, with 13 electors. His campaign was marred by Communist infiltration under the direction of the Comintern.

Russian blandishments involving Republican personalities, including some from New York, are therefore nothing new. In 1934 a certain Vito Marcantonio was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from East Harlem as a Republican, in a political environment where Democrats, as today, were considered irredeemably corrupt. He served one term as a Republican before losing in 1936. In 1938 Marcantonio returned to Congress for the first of six terms representing the “American Labor Party,” in which guise he served as a mouthpiece for the Communists, and therefore the Russian authorities.

As one feature of his long service to the Kremlin, Marcantonio was a prominent figure in the first great “peace offensive,” during the 1939-41 Hitler-Stalin Pact, as the pro-Soviet left offered pretexts for isolationist rhetoric. Communist-controlled unions called for “peace” strikes among workers producing warplanes for besieged Britain. The pseudo-folk Almanac Singers, led by banjoist Pete Seeger, performed cabaret ballads excoriating President Franklin D. Roosevelt as a demagogue who would say “I hate war, and so does Eleanor, but we won’t be safe till everybody’s dead.” An incessant, identical “antiwar” propaganda would be continued without much variation, in crisis after crisis after 1945, to discredit American intervention.

Before World War II ended, Russian spies had penetrated and compromised the American-led development of the atomic bomb. The summits of power in Washington had come under major influence by a Soviet spy ring most famously associated with Alger Hiss, a high State Department official before his dismissal in 1946 and the subsequent public exposure of his disloyal activities. Still, the American political system underwent a new and troubling interlude in 1948, once again based in the machinations of a “Progressive” party.

In that year, former vice president and New Deal cabinet member Henry A. Wallace ran for president representing the new party, gaining only 1.1 million votes, or 2.4 percent, and no electoral votes. The Wallace Progressive party was denounced as a Russian operation by commentators as diverse as the conservative H.L. Mencken and the anti-Stalinist leftist Dwight Macdonald. As noted by Hilton Kramer, writing in The New Criterion in 1994, Macdonald described Wallace and his enthusiasts with unsurpassable accuracy: “Wallaceland is the mental habitat of Henry Wallace plus a few hundred thousand regular readers of The New Republic [and] The Nation. . . . It is a region of perpetual fogs, caused by the warm winds of the liberal Gulf Stream coming in contact with the Soviet glacier. Its natives speak ‘Wallese,’ a debased provincial dialect.”

Wallace, for his part, had contributed one of the most repellent chapters of pro-Soviet fawning in the annals of American statecraft when, in May 1944, he inspected the Gulag forced-labor complex at Magadan in Siberia. According to a KGB official’s report, the credulous American vice president and his cohort “visited the Magadan House of Culture, [where they] examined an exhibition of fine arts and inventions. [Wallace] wrote in the visitor book: ‘This is an outstanding expression of a strong people who were the pioneers of this region. Henry WALLACE.’ ”

That was a mild example of Wallace’s fervent Sovietophilia. During the sojourn to Magadan he sent a telegram to Stalin reading, “The policy of the Government of the USSR which has made … progress and … achievements possible is clear evidence of the most outstanding and gifted political leadership. … May our two great nations working in close harmony make their contribution to the cause of the prosperity of the whole world by the same abundant production in peacetime as was achieved by them during the war.”

Such effusions exemplified the hyperbole employed by powerful Soviet agents in American political life, long before the latest adventure by Putin. These intrigues and provocations, especially the Hiss case, created the historical basis for Republican defiance of Sovietism that, with the episodes that made it necessary, seems all but forgotten today, when its relevance may be as great as ever.