Saturday, April 21, 2007




DECEIVING THE DECEIVERS: Kim Philby, Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess, S.J. Hamrick, Yale University Press, New Haven, 2004.

I like a James Bond spy thriller, replete with the latest technology, as well as the next guy. Le Carre’s Cold War-inspired George Smiley series. Even better. So when I expected to get the real ‘scoop’ on the actions of the Kim Philby-led Ring of Five in England that performed heroic spy service for the Soviet Union I found instead mostly skimpy historical conjecture by Mr. Hamrick. The central premise of his book that the Ring of Five was led by the rings in their noses by Western intelligence made me long for one of Mr. le Carre’s books. Apparently the only virtue of the opening of Cold War archives has been not to bring some clarity about the period but to create a cottage industry of conjecture and coincidence that rivals the Lee Harvey Oswald industry. Interestingly, the New York Review of Books (April 26, 2007) in its review of Mr. Hamrick’s book brought in the big guns. The review by Phillip Knightley, who actually has done some heavy work sorting out the Philby case, politely, too politely, dismisses the claims as so much smoke. No disagreement there from these quarters.

Intelligence gathering, as we are painfully aware in light of the Iraq fiasco, is a very inexact science. So mistakes, honest mistakes unlike the fudged Iraq intelligence, are part of the price for increased knowledge about what your enemy is up to. This writer makes no bones about his admiration for Kim Philby and the others who came over to the side of communism, as they saw it. That they were traitors to their English upper class upbringing, to boot, only increases their appeal. One can argue all one wants to about whether the information they provided to the Soviets was good, tainted, ignored or thrown in the waste paper basket. The question for history is did they subjectively aim to aid the cause of socialism. And did they come to regret their youthful decisions. From all the evidence, especially in the case of Philby, they did not. Until someone comes up with the ‘smoking gun’ that the Ring of Five’s work was all a sham socialists should still honor their memories. And that of Richard Sorge in Japan. Also Leopold Trepper and his “Red Orchestra” in Europe during the German Occupation. And, dare I say it, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in the United States.

Friday, April 20, 2007





As the current Bush Administration-directed quagmire continues in Iraq it is rather timely to look at the previously bout of American imperialist madness in Vietnam if only in order to demonstrate the similar mindsets, then and now, of the American political establishment and their hangers-on. This book, unintentionally I am sure, is a prima facie argument, against those who see Iraq (or saw Vietnam) as merely an erroneous policy of the American government that can be ‘fixed’ by a change to a more rational imperialist policy guided by a different elite. Undeniably there are many differences between the current war and the struggle in Vietnam. Not the least of which is that in Vietnam there was a Communist-led insurgency that leftists throughout the world could identify with and were duty-bound to support. No such situation exists in Iraq today where, seemingly, from the little we know about the murky politics of the parties there militant leftists can support individual anti-imperialist actions as they occur but stand away, way away from the religious sectarian struggle for different versions of a fundamentalist Islamic state that the various parties are apparently fighting for.

Stanley Karnow’s well-informed study of the long history of struggle in Vietnam against outsiders, near and far, is a more than adequate primer about the history and the political issues, from the American side at least, as they came to a head in Vietnam in the early 1960’s. This work was produced in conjunction with a Public Broadcasting System documentary in 1983 so that if one wants to take the time to get a better grasp of the situation as it unfolded the combination of the literary and visual presentations will make one an ‘armchair expert’ on the subject. A glossary of by now unfamiliar names of secondary players and chronology of events is helpful as are some very good photographs that lead into each chapter

This book is the work of a long time journalist who covered Southeast Asia from the 1950’s until at least the early 1980’s when he went back after the war was over and interviewed various survivors from both sides as well as key political players. Although over twenty years has passed since the book’s publication it appears to me that he has covered all the essential elements of the dispute as well as the wrangling, again mainly on the American side , of policy makers big and small. While everyone should look at more recent material that material appears to me to be essentially more specialized analysis of the general themes presented in Karnow’s book. Or are the inevitably self-serving memoirs by those, like former Secretary of War Robert McNamara, looking to refurbish their images for the historical record. Karnow’s book has the added virtue of having been written just long enough after the end of the war that memories, faulty as they are in any case, were still fresh but with enough time in between for some introspection.

The first part of Karnow’s book deals with the long history of the Vietnamese as a people in their various provincial enclaves, or as a national entity, to be independent of the many other powers in the region, particularly China, who wanted to subjugate them. The book also pays detailed attention to the fight among the European colonial powers for dominance in the region culminating in the decisive victory for control by France in the 1800’s. That domination by a Western imperialist power, ultimately defeated by the same Communist and nationalist forces that were to defeat the Americans and their South Vietnamese allies, sets the stage for the huge role that the United States would come to play from the time of the French defeat in 1954 until their own defeat a couple of decades later. This section is important to read because the premises of the French about their adversary became, in almost cookie-cutter fashion, the same premises that drove American policy. And to similar ends.

The bulk of the book and the central story line, however, is a study of the hubris of American imperialist policy-makers in attempting to define their powers, prerogatives and interests in the post-World War II period. The sub-title of the book, which the current inhabitants of the Bush Administration obviously have not read and in any case would willfully misunderstand, is how not to subordinate primary interests to momentary secondary interests in the scramble to preserve the Empire.

Apparently, common sense and simple rationality are in short supply when one goes inside the Washington Beltway. Taking into account the differences in personality among the three main villains of the piece- Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon- the similarities of response and need to defend some sense of honor, American honor, are amazingly similar, individual rhetoric aside. There thus can be little wonder the North Vietnamese went about their business of revolution and independence pretty much according to their plans and with little regard to ‘subtleties’ in American diplomacy. But, read the book and judge for yourselves. Do not be surprised if something feels awfully, awfully familiar.

Thursday, April 19, 2007




No leftist has, or should have any illusions, particularly these days with the current composition of the United States Supreme Court, that any of our hard fought constitutional safeguards are safe from attack. The constitutionally-sanctioned right to privacy took a rather big hit on April 18, 2007 when the people in black, or I should say men in black, voted 5-4 to uphold a federally-enacted ban against so-called ‘partial-birth’ abortions passed by a Republican Congress and signed into law by one George W. Bush. While we have long seen the Fourth Amendment right to security from unwarranted searches and seizures become emasculated by these closet Nazis this is the first time that the new rightist majority has taken direct aim at the right to abortion. It was not pretty and the future looks equally bleak.

In the case of the previously mentioned Fourth Amendment, however, the esteemed justices at least had the defense, as I have noted elsewhere, that they were unaware that such constitutional safeguards existed. I have it on good authority that Justice Thomas did not even know that such an amendment existed. Jusstice Scalia is aware of the amendment but believes that it only applies to writs of general assistance that were actually signed by George III or one of his royal agents. Apparently their expensive law educations did not include courses on such trivial matters. But on the question of abortion the two new Bush-appointed Supremes- Roberts and Alito- were placed on the court for no other reason than to take dead aim at the landmark 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision. And they came through.

Well so much for the obvious. What is not quite so obvious and what should concern leftists who understand the need to desperately defend abortion rights is the response of the major women’s rights group the bourgeois National Organization for Women (NOW). According to a statement issued by NOW in response to the Supreme Court decision the way to beat back this latest challenge to abortion rights for all women is to elect a Congress and a President, presumably Democratic, that will overturn the federally-mandated ban. Jesus, have these people lost all political imagination. A little primer on the subject would reveal that one of the key factors in the Roe Court’s decision resulted from the pressure from the streets that women and their allies organized. That lesson apparently has been lost in the mist of time. Nevertheless we have not forgotten that tactic and we better be prepared to use it again. And while we are at it we had better dust off our old slogans. DEFEND ABORTION RIGHTS! DEFEND ABORTION CLINICS! DEFEND ABORTION ON DEMAND!