book reviews

Treason: Liberal Treachery from the Cold War to the War on Terrorism
Ann Coulter
Crown Forum, 2003, 355 pages
Reviewed by: T.J. Nelson

E verything you think you know about McCarthy is a hegemonic lie,” says political commentator Ann Coulter in her third book, which has already become another best-seller. During the period between the so-called “Red Scare” of the 1950s and the release of the Venona transcripts in 1995, the American news media built up a mythology about Joseph McCarthy as the central figure of a movement that used anti-Communism to destroy people's lives and trample on civil liberties. The Venona transcripts proved McCarthy's claim that in those days, Communists had indeed infiltrated the American State Department, the War Department, the Office of Strategic Services, and the Treasury Department, influenced foreign policy to benefit the USSR, and given atomic and hydrogen bomb secrets to the Russians. These traitors included Harry Dexter White, assistant secretary of the Treasury Department; Lauchlin Currie, Roosevelt's personal assistant; Klaus Fuchs, a top Manhattan Project scientist, and hundreds of others.

But even after the Venona transcripts were released, the media establishment continued to ridicule those who warned about Communists, just as presidents Roosevelt and Harry Truman and Dean Acheson had done. The Rosenbergs, two Soviet spies who were executed for giving the USSR the means to annihilate Western civilization, were heralded as innocent victims despite overwhelming evidence of their guilt. For liberals, the McCarthy era is their version of the Holocaust and discussion of it serves the same energizing purpose as the Holocaust does for Jews. The difference, of course, is that the Jews' holocaust actually happened.

In those days, while the USSR was threatening America with nuclear Armageddon, the American Communist Party was a virtual organ of the KGB and received funding from our Cold War adversary. Throughout the 1950s, 60s and 70s, the American Left and the news media smeared J. Edgar Hoover, Whittaker Chambers, Joseph McCarthy and Roy Cohn as lunatics and perverts. Countless documentaries have portrayed “McCarthyism” as a “witch hunt.” Yet Venona has proved beyond any doubt that McCarthy was right, at least on one point: that there were hundreds of Soviet agents in our government. Their goal was undermine democracy throughout the world, and they could have been successful.

One need only look at the background of the person who killed our President in 1963 to learn whether Communist agents and “sympathizers” were a real or imaginary threat to this country.

Treason is largely successful at its important task of beginning the much-needed re-evaluation of Joe McCarthy, who was motivated not by fanaticism but by patriotism. Some serious historians, including Arthur Herman and Ron Radosh, have already begun this task, and have made many of the same points that Ann Coulter makes in this book. McCarthy does not deserve the demonization the Left has subjected him to, which at the time was based almost as much on class as on his politics. Even the liberal icon JFK, bucking what must have been intense partisan pressure, and risking vituperation by a virulently biased press, called McCarthy a “great American patriot.” But McCarthy's hands were tied because of the Government's refusal to reveal that it had cracked the Soviet codes. Had it done so, Joe McCarthy would have been largely vindicated, and the term “McCarthyism” would never have entered our vocabulary.

Ann Coulter demonstrates systematically how the stories about McCarthy spreading innuendo and ruining people's reputations are, for the most part, falsehoods and exaggerations invented by news reporters and political opponents of McCarthy. She points to the plight of “blacklist survivor” Norma Barzman, who was forced into “exile” in Paris and forced to eat dinner with Pablo Picasso every Tuesday when she was at her country house in Provence. “It was hard,” says Barzman. But she was hardly the only victim of the McCarthy-era pogroms. Countless others were forced to dine with expressionists. The true blacklisting, Coulter says, is what is happening today against writers who fail to worship the liberals' sacred cows of homosexuality, abortion, and anti-American dictators.

The news media also gleefully repeated the rumor that J. Edgar Hoover was a transvestite. This rumor is one of the KGB's greatest disinformation victories--even today, many people mindlessly cling to the incongruously improbable, and totally fabricated, myth of Hoover prancing in front of a mirror, wearing a fluffy boa. Coulter, however, incorrectly attributes the rumors to politically-motivated liberals. The reality is that the stories about Hoover were invented by KGB and only propagated by his opponents in the poisonous political climate of the time.

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Coulter also includes a glowing paean to Ronald Reagan, the president who did more than any other American to win the Cold War, then launches into discussions of Bill Clinton, North Korea, the second Iraq War, and the War on Terrorism, stopping just short of accusing Jimmy Carter of treason for accepting a Nobel Peace Prize awarded by Norway in a fit of pro-Saddam Bush-bashing. These chapters are mostly restatements of her well-known views on the subject, with a scattering of new insights thrown in, but written with Ann Coulter's sometimes devastating wit: “In Baghdad, [Sean] Penn ... looked for weapons of mass destruction, but the only bomb he found was a bootleg copy of Shanghai Surprise.” and “Penn wasn't even worried he would be unpopular, much less charged with treason ... the most Americans could hope for was that no Hollywood actress would have an affair with Saddam Hussein.” My advice: don't read this book and drink milk at the same time.

Ann Coulter blames all Democrats, accusing them if not of treason then willful blindness and sympathy, because of their inability to differentiate between right and wrong, to the traitors in their midst. But much of the blame also belongs to the general public which to this day seems blissfully ignorant of the manipulation and misinformation with which they are bombarded on a daily basis. They were told by the New York Times and New Republic, for example, that the NKVD's accusations against Russian dissidents were “true.” She points out that while McCarthyism has figured in several films, Hollywood has never made a movie about Stalin's gulags or show trials. Drama queen Lillian Hellman was typical of Hollywood's “patriotism” in donating the profits from her pro-Stalin book to a fund promoting Marxism.

The spirit of the times was (and still is) that hedonism and irresponsibility was the progressive way of the future, and many people simply believed whatever the mass media told them rather than expending the effort to discover the truth. Now that the Internet has provided the public with more diverse and accurate sources of information, this may change.

Ann Coulter's book at times seems too political and argumentative, even at times a bit shrill. As history, it is too superficial to be the authoritative and objective reevaluation of McCarthy that has been desperately needed in the light of Venona. A calmer and more reflective approach might have made her case more effectively, and insulated her from the vituperation this book is certain to arouse. But the temptation to shrillness is understandable when children's textbooks proclaim disingenuously that McCarthy was “an enormous, outrageous, beyond-belief liar.” Such statements are the result of allowing overly-imaginative journalists like Walter Duranty of the New York Times, whose pro-Stalin reporting was typical of the era, and I.F. Stone, a KGB agent masquerading as “the conscience of investigative journalism,” to write the first draft of history.

Ann Coulter has a lot on her chest, but perhaps because she feels so strongly about the subject, she tries to say it all at the same time, sometimes jumping randomly from Roosevelt and the New York Times to Monica Lewinsky, Clinton and Jimmy Carter to Mohammed Atta and his compatriots in the Religion of Peace. Condemnations of Bill Clinton pour out on top of criticisms of Hollywood anti-war protesters and Maureen Dowd. Behind it all, it seems, are the Democrats, against whom she pours page after page of scorn. The liberals have a dreadful record in the struggle against tyranny and Communism. The question is, why? The Democrats' foreign policy may consist at least in part of “preemptive surrender,” but it is unhelpful to equate liberal = Democrat = traitor as she does on page 75, where she says “Liberals relentlessly attack their own country, but we can't call them traitors, which they manifestly are.” The unfocused nature of this equation comes uncomfortably close to the broad, indiscriminate attacks that liberals accuse McCarthy himself of making. And in the last chapter, which nearly degenerates into diatribe, where she says that liberals have a “hatred of civilization” (p.286), Ann also makes a strong case for drinking decaffeinated coffee.

Ann Coulter's harshness on liberals reflects today's polarized political atmosphere. In fact, her confrontational approach is mild compared to that of the liberals she detests. For example, liberals absurdly blame conservatives for everything from causing the 9/11 attacks to starting World War II. One can question whether conservatives should adopt the tactics of liberals, but after forty years of rancor, name-calling, and wild-eyed disinformation pouring from the pens of intolerant liberals, it's no wonder that uncompromising conservatives like Ann Coulter are starting to fight back.

Created July 5, 2003; Last updated August 29, 2003