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- Harry Mount, the London Telegraph

Features

February 1998

Rebecca West & the FBI

by Carl Rollyson

On Rebecca West's FBI file & what it tells us

On October 19, 1992, I wrote to the Federal Bureau of Investigation requesting under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to see Rebecca West’s file. I had made a similar request for Lillian Hellman’s file, and after several months—with help from my congressman—I received hundreds of pages of reports on Hellman’s activities.[1] She had belonged to several Communist Front organizations. She had been involved in labor union drives in California. She was an outspoken leftist and was often called a Stalinist. Most dramatically, she had had an affair with John Melby, a foreign service officer she had met in the U.S. embassy in Moscow. Even after names had been blacked out, the file was a fund of information. It contained accounts from informants and interviews with Hellman’s friends and associates. This was raw data—though the word data is misleading, since it implies factual material, and FBI files are more like gossip sheets that have to be stringently checked. Errors abound, not merely about a subject’s political opinions and affiliations, but also about the basics of his or her life. Unlike The New Yorker, the FBI does not employ fact checkers for its files. Nevertheless, these files help to pin down dates, episodes, and scenes in a subject’s life. No biographer should be without the FBI dossier of his or her subject—if such a file exists.

I was sure there was a file on Rebecca West (1892–1983), although I was also certain it would look nothing like Lillian Hellman’s. Although West often described herself as a socialist—certainly as late as the end of World War II she was voting Labor —she had never been a Communist or a fellow traveler. Even as the revolution was triumphing in Russia in 1917, West voiced skepticism about the Bolsheviks. She made a curious comment about them, one that sounds frivolous. She said they talked too much.

In fact, she had heard them talking in her home, where her conservative father often brought revolutionists (as they were sometimes called then) for debates. He had a fondness for them because he had been educated by two Frenchmen who had been active in the Commune of 1871. He rejected their politics but not the dialectical habit of mind. His precocious and curious daughter, then between the ages of five and eight in 1898–1901, observed these big talkers and drew conclusions about Bolshevism that were confirmed as she matured. Her final word on the revolutionists can be found in her great novel, The Birds Fall Down (1966). The revolutionists talk and talk, and what they reveal is a monstrous inhumanity, a dedication to the idea of revolution with a total disregard for the very people they claim to be liberating. Of course, the ancien régime fares no better in this novel. Indeed, the czarist party shares with the Bolsheviks a loquacity that is orgiastic, frenzied, and self-indulgent, for West believed that Bolshevism would use the same autocratic methods as the old guard.[2] The revolutionists would simply build on the czarist bureaucracy and secret police, and the cult of the czar would be replaced by the cult of the Bolshevik leader. This is why West makes her novel’s main character a double agent, serving both the revolutionists and the reactionaries.

West regarded the Russian Revolution as a colossal mistake. But when President Wilson and others attempted to quash the Bolshevik advance—even sending troops to help the Whites in Russia—West objected. Each nation had a right to work out its own destiny, she wrote in a preface to Emma Goldman’s book My Disillusionment in Russia (1924). Rebecca West was a fervent anti-Communist, but she was no redbaiter. Indeed, she deplored the deportation of Goldman from the United States, and West praised Goldman for speaking out against the Palmer raids which rounded up Reds and violated their civil liberties.[3] When Goldman came to England in 1924 to denounce Bolshevik tyranny and to solicit aid from the British Left for her anti-Bolshevik campaign, West staunchly supported her even as figures such as Bertrand Russell and H. G. Wells refused to sanction Goldman’s all-out attack on the Soviet Union. West had nothing but scorn for liberals and other leftists who would not criticize the Soviet Union because the British Conservative Party and reactionary elements also attacked what West insisted was not a union of soviet socialist republics, but in fact simply Soviet Russia. She predicted that the British Labor Party and the cause of socialism would be doomed if the British Left blinked at Soviet tyranny. When she was not attacked for being merely a fanatical anti-Communist, she was ignored. Of course, West was correct, and she was—as far as I know—the first person in the West to get it right while maintaining a leftist orientation.

West believed that the future—however difficult—belonged to republican governments. When Franco attacked the Spanish republic, she supported the republic even though that meant supporting Communists, who were organizing much of the resistance to fascism. She gave money to Ralph Bates, one of her colleagues at the periodical Time and Tide, so that he could speak on behalf of the Spanish republic in the United States. West did not attach her name to the lists of Communist Front organizations and members that agitated on behalf of the Spanish republic, but she included herself in a pamphlet filled with writers’ statements backing the republic.

By the beginning of World War II, West’s strong anti-Communism placed her in a precarious position among her leftist friends, a fact that can easily be ascertained from the epilogue to her masterpiece, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (1941). Her main charge against the Left is that it had been more concerned with the moral purity of its principles than with the struggle to gain political power. Rather than dealing with the compromises that any ruling majority has to make, the Left—particularly the Labor Party—had preferred its role as a virtuous minority. Small wonder, then, that reactionary and fascist forces had filled the power vacuum. She had also lost a good deal of faith in the socialist promise, though it would take the antediluvian attitudes of the labor unions in the 1950s, and her disgust with the hysteria over McCarthyism, to smother her last tender feelings toward the Left.

West got into a good deal of trouble with a series of articles for the London Sunday Times in March 1953 (reprinted in U.S. News and World Report) for advancing a position that was far more concerned about Communist infiltration of Western governments and with the tyrannical policies of Communist regimes than with the relatively petty annoyance of Communist witch-hunts. As she made clear in a series of biographical articles on Stalin in the London Evening Standard, Communism was not a political ideology; it was a criminal conspiracy that deserved to be investigated and rooted out of Western democracies.

So why should I think that Rebecca West had an FBI file? If there ever was a figure above suspicion as a subversive, it was certainly Rebecca West. But dossiers were assembled not just on Communists and fellow travelers. The FBI investigated all sorts of people in the public eye. More importantly, West had an impressive record of contacts with government agencies and offices. She could well have been an informant for the FBI or other agencies such as the CIA. She knew the CIA’s first director, Allen Dulles, quite well. Her husband, Henry Andrews, knew Dulles from the 1920s and 1930s, when Dulles worked on Wall Street. West talked politics with Dulles; they met socially. They corresponded. During the 1930s, West wrote a series of articles on the New Deal and got to know Attorney General Francis Biddle—later one of the judges at the Nuremberg trials, when the two had an affair.

Biddle told her that he regretted the shoddy hiring practices during the Roosevelt years; there had been a lot of logrolling—Communists hiring fellow Communists. Biddle told her things that he would never say publicly—things that no Democrat felt comfortable talking about, since the Republicans would surely use the open expression of such regrets to partisan advantage. Discussion of the extent of Communist infiltration of the New Deal was always skewed because, once again, liberals who knew about the infiltration did not want to abet the reactionaries who would use this knowledge to undermine New Deal policies. Instead, Truman initiated his own internal security programs that demanded such things as loyalty oaths.

In England, West had extraordinary contacts with the British Foreign Office. Her travels in Yugoslavia had made her a valuable source for the British government, and her husband’s contacts in Germany and in Eastern Europe also made him a source of information about the German aircraft industry and about business enterprises in Nazi-occupied lands. Andrews had also been instrumental in spiriting many Jews out of Nazi Germany and had extensive contacts in the underground. West and Andrews knew the important figures in the London governments-in-exile during the war. The couple heard all the gossip about the intrigues involving Tito and the jostling for position in postwar Europe.

Right after the war, West relied on her friendship with Theobald Mathew, who had been her attorney and advisor for years and was then director of public prosecutions, to procure material for her coverage of the treason trials which resulted in her two great books of reportage, The Meaning of Treason (1948) and A Train of Powder (1955). West loved law cases and government documents. Unlike many intellectuals, she understood modern administration and bureaucracy. She had a feel for what it was like to govern—not just a penchant for criticizing the governors. See, for example, her extraordinary book The Court and the Castle (1957) in which she reveals her exquisite literary and political perceptions. She understands Kafka, for example, not only as a writer, but also as an official who worked for the Hapsburg bureaucracy.

So I was prepared to read a most unusual FBI file—one that would reveal a writer who had an inside knowledge of how modern governments dealt with security matters. Her profile would be nothing like those of most intellectuals who sign petitions and lend their names to causes out of a kind of sentimental leftism, which still goes unexamined. I also knew something else. West had a direct pipeline into the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). She had an old American friend, Doris Stevens, whom West had first met in the 1920s when they shared a fervent devotion to feminism. Stevens later worked for the New Deal, was fired, and then soured on the Roosevelts, angry that they had been co-opted by the Communists who had infiltrated the New Deal bureaucracy.

Stevens fed West information from HUAC files. She even interviewed Elizabeth Bentley, the so-called “Red Spy Queen,” whom many on the Left ridiculed but whom Stevens and West believed. (Much of what seemed farfetched in Bentley’s HUAC testimony has been corroborated in recent years). What is so impressive about West is that she did not merely read about Bentley but did her own investigative work. And she did not just read about HUAC, she looked at the way HUAC gathered its data —a far more scrupulous process than anyone could imagine from watching the buffoonery of congressmen riding the anti-Communist bandwagon for self-serving purposes. HUAC made a poor impression in the media, but it had investigators doing serious research. It is shameful, of course, that HUAC often made a hash of that research—a point West conceded.

I made my request to the FBI in the autumn of 1992. I also wrote to other security agencies, such as the CIA and the National Security Agency (NSA). I expected to wait up to a year for information. I bided my time because I had West’s own extensive files and could track her political involvements through her correspondence and through the papers of her friends and associates. But I was stunned to learn that each agency claimed that it had nothing on West in its files. I surmised that the material had been destroyed sometime earlier or that an inadequate search had been made.

The FBI acknowledged my FOIA request on November 12, 1992, and I never heard from the agency again—that is until August 3, 1997—nearly two years after I had completed my biography of West. Her file arrived at my Baruch College office. Names had been blacked out and pages were missing, probably for any of the following reasons: an executive order had established that this material be kept secret; revealing certain material would interfere with enforcement proceedings; disclosing the contents would invade privacy; confidential sources would be disclosed; techniques and procedures of law enforcement agencies would be revealed and thus risk circumvention of the law; the life or physical safety of individuals might be endangered.

Even with these exemptions, I got sixteen pages—a small file but a revealing one, nevertheless, about both Rebecca West and the FBI. The first page is a memorandum (August 22, 1955) from Mr. M. A. Jones to Mr. Nichols providing a capsule biography of the subject taken—as it often is in FBI files—from a standard reference book that contains significant errors. In this case, the mistake is the statement that West was born in Scotland. In fact, she was born in London, although she received much of her education in Edinburgh. The third sentence identifies her as an anti-Communist. The next sentence (bingo!) reports that she has furnished information to an FBI liaison representative (name blacked out) in England “on a number of occasions.” It is noted that she requested from the FBI information on the Rosenberg and Fuchs spy cases, about which she later wrote articles. (In fact, as the FBI file later reveals, in December 1952, West wrote directly to J. Edgar Hoover about the Rosenbergs, but she was not given information because the case was then being appealed.) Mr. Jones cites a memorandum of May 1953 that his colleague Mr. Jones wrote to J. Edgar Hoover’s right-hand man, Clyde Tolson, observing that West had written articles defending “McCarthyism.” These were the U.S. News & World Report articles that got West into trouble with American liberals. She would have vehemently denied that she was defending McCarthyism; rather, her articles treated him as a sideshow—not as a menace to the Republic.

Mr. Jones reports that West has stated she knows John Foster Dulles “very well.” I never found any support for that claim—if she made it. He also refers to Mr. Nichols’s memo from 1951 about West’s “vociferous” writing about traitors. Her travels in Yugoslavia, her reports on the Nuremberg trials, and her interest in the Hiss case are all duly noted in this “synopsis” Mr. Jones provides for Mr. Nichols. The FBI had not only followed West’s travels and her writing, it took note of her contacts with Europeans who “came to her with information.” To Clyde Tolson, she had conveyed (whether in person, in writing, or indirectly is not clear because the memo is blacked out at this point) the names of important Soviet agents in America. The FBI investigated her source, a TASS representative, but Mr. Jones does not comment on the accuracy of her statement. He also acknowledges her article, “Opera in Greenville,” concerning a lynching in Greenville, South Carolina, which contained, he says, “an unfavorable reference to the Bureau.” (She had criticized the FBI’s possibly “illegitimate methods” of obtaining statements from witnesses.)

Much of the material in West’s dossier is repetitive—a characteristic of many FBI files. Subsequent pages fill in details about her education and publication history. The FBI took keen interest in how she phrased her anti-Communist position. For instance, it remarked that one of her Sunday Times articles concluded that the printed record of Congressional investigations of Communism “shows no more inquisitiveness at work … than the situation would have provoked in any society not manifestly insane.” She had also called the word “witch-hunting” the “careless repetition of an impudent piece of Communist propaganda.” Although such statements outraged many liberals, the FBI file points out that the U.S. News & World Report reprint of the Sunday Times articles had provoked a phenomenal reaction: “All issues of the magazine had been sold out and … the magazine’s mail had been unprecedented—most letters upholding West’s view.”

Mr. Jones charted the trajectory of West’s involvement in Yugoslavia and how she had been accused of allying herself with the country’s right-wing parties and with a banker husband who had financial interests in Eastern Europe. West denied these allegations, Mr. Jones points out. Her husband had no property or investments in Yugoslavia or in businesses dealing with that country, and she was not a reactionary —although she added in a preface to David Martin’s book, Ally Betrayed (an account of how the West had abandoned General Mihailovicï for Marshal Tito):

I am a socialist. But I have to admit that in the last few years the left wing has shown itself just about as good a custodian of the sacred principles of Liberty, Fraternity, and Equality, as the watchdog who was found holding a lamp in his mouth for the burglar who was cracking the safe.

This criticism, voiced in 1947, would be confirmed for West straightaway in the credulous position that the Left adopted in the Hiss-Chambers case. She would call it the Dreyfus case in reverse: whereas Dreyfus had been the victim of those who immediately presumed him guilty, Hiss became the darling of liberals who automatically assumed and indeed demanded that Hiss be declared innocent. Mr. Jones comments that the media was beginning to slot West into a reactionary niche. He quotes a New York Times article (January 18, 1948) which observes that West adored Yugoslavia “and its vivid inhabitants from what one may call the right-wing side of the fence politically.”

In October 1950, the FBI’s Baltimore office had further confirmation of West’s impressive sources on the subject of Communist infiltration of Western governments. Whittaker Chambers, in an interview with the FBI, revealed that he had been told (the name of his informant is blacked out) that before the Hiss case broke in America, a young Czech woman had told West that Hiss was a Russian spy. The FBI then interviewed the woman, who corroborated what she had told West and what Chambers had passed on to the FBI. Apparently West had not gone to the FBI or to British security, concluding after a discussion with her husband that “she had no business getting involved in the controversy,” Mr. Jones reports. The FBI, working through its legal attaché in London, took steps to set up an interview with West. Later pages in her file reveal that on August 17, 1951, she provided the FBI with substantial background information on Communist activities.

The London interview was evidently a doozy. The legal attaché had been prepped for the interview with the cautionary observation that West was “irritable and suspicious” but also “extremely conscientious, intelligent, sincere and needing to be treated with patience and candor.” West revealed that a TASS representative had approached her while she was covering the Progressive Party presidential convention in Philadelphia in 1948. She not only relayed what he said but added much more, though how valuable it was to the FBI is uncertain, since some of it was judged “largely nonspecific.” But that phrase refers to material or to persons who are blacked out. West may have been a little cagey, for her file notes:

She advised she preferred furnishing the information to American authorities since she had little confidence in British Intelligence and the Director of Public Prosecutions in London. She previously had furnished the Public Prosecutor information concerning Communists in Government, but no action had been taken.

West was interviewed again in September 1951 and on other occasions, Mr. Jones reports.

How reliable was West’s information? The FBI considered the question carefully. She was unsure about details. For example, she could give only a phonetic spelling for the TASS representative she had interviewed. It was hard getting a complete picture from her. Rebecca West was one of the great talkers of the Western world, but on the subject of Communism she managed to bore even the FBI. Her remarks are characterized as “rather tedious.” It is also eyebrow-raising for a member of the Bureau to call her “very sensitive and imaginative and certainly fanatic on the subject of Communism.” The ultimate conclusion, however, was that “she undoubtedly had seen a person (Tass representative) who in all probability had furnished her information concerning Soviet spies and Communists.”

West’s confidence in the FBI—as opposed to the British security services—never wavered. For example, she alerted the FBI that in February 1953 she had seen the galleys of William Allen Jowitt’s book The Strange Case of Alger Hiss and that the book took an unfavorable attitude toward the FBI. She was so incensed after a dinner with Charlie Chaplin, in which he brazenly broadcast his Communist views, that she had contacted the Bureau, calling Chaplin “crazy.” He was an ex-lover, whom she had seen in Rome while trying to write a screenplay for Roberto Rossellini, whom she also found to be infected with Communist enthusiasm. A blacked-out section covering events during this period has an asterisk after it with the comment that at least some of West’s allegations could not be substantiated.

It is impossible to tell, in the end, how good an informant Rebecca West made. At least three pages of her file have been removed. What is striking is that she apparently never mentioned any of her liberal American friends—anyone who might fall under the FBI’s suspicion. She often had arguments with American liberals who thought she had a blind spot about McCarthyism, and she got angry at people like Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., who tried to get her to reconsider her view that McCarthy had done no significant damage to American institutions or to the political climate.

West, in truth, was far more concerned with how the FBI regarded her than about the criticism of liberals. In November 1953, for example, she wrote a letter to the Bureau explaining that her article on the dangers of radioactivity should not be taken as some kind of “anti-H-bomb or unilateral disarmament campaign.” What the Bureau called her active imagination is revealed in this letter (which is part of her FBI file) in which she fears that “some form of Intelligence might be wrinkling its brows” over her article. Near the end of her file is her acknowledgement of J. Edgar Hoover’s letter congratulating her on the honor of having been named Dame of the British Empire.

Seeing her letter gave me a shock—not so much for what it says (the letter is in character), but because Hoover’s letter is not in West’s papers, and I am sure she treasured it. Her words to Hoover sound an entirely conservative note, but then on March 7, 1959—when she wrote the letter— she did believe that the West was engaged in an apocalyptic struggle with Communism. She had come to believe that without law there can be no order or liberty. “It was most kind of you to send me your congratulations on my Damehood or Dameship, I haven’t myself yet grasped what it should be called,” West wrote Hoover. “I am proud of my honour, and proud too that the FBI should have sent me their good wishes. Long may they live to establish law and order!”

J. Edgar Hoover has become, of course, the great bugbear of American liberals, and West’s letter will no doubt make the Left wince. She could be more fanatical on the subject of anti-Communism than the FBI— but then she thought that her side (the Left) had let her down, and she was badly in need of allies and of acknowledgement, both of which the FBI gave her. Her file confirms a side of West that my biography of her also shows: she felt (I think justifiably) isolated. Her outspoken anti-Communism got her tagged not only as a conservative or a reactionary; it also hurt her in the literary world, where her magnificent grasp of political reality and of political institutions is still shunned.

West reached a turning point, I believe, when Stalin made his pact with Hitler. She noted that many of the founders of the Bolshevik Party were Jewish—not to mention Karl Marx himself. That Stalin could strike a deal with the man responsible for the Holocaust (and she knew about the concentration camps long before Western governments acknowledged their existence) proved that Soviet Russia was nothing more than a criminal regime. She was revolted at the way so much of the Left ignored Stalin’s culpability. I think it is her loathing for this tyranny that overrode any consideration she might otherwise have given to the evils of McCarthyism.

With evils as massive as Communism and fascism, West put no stock in leftist sentiments as a way to counteract tyranny. Institutions like the FBI were essential. In a little-known, brief essay, she explained how her political attitudes had evolved. She had grown up in a world that prized rebellion, and she had been a rebel. She supposed that human beings were naturally good and that the law was a cumbersome instrument that dealt harshly with people. Law would lose its sway when the revolution brought an end to poverty and evil. Two wars, the concentration camps, and totalitarian government convinced her that the good in people was not merely a quality to be brought out. It had to be created by an effort of love and a submission to the “Rule of Law.”

West’s letter to Hoover acknowledges his authority. Too often, in her view, dissent had turned into an attack on the idea of authority itself. Her letter is, if you will, a kind of submission. West was not surrendering her freedom to criticize Hoover and government institutions, but she was recognizing his rightful role in upholding the law. At the same time, she recognized not merely the role of the dissenter but of the traitor, arguing in The Meaning of Treason that it was good for individuals to have a drop of treason in their blood. Society did not change, and it could not improve, without challenges to authority.

The FBI welcomed and yet was understandably wary of Rebecca West’s contributions to its anti-Communist investigations. She had an incandescent mind. Her niece has said that if she ever came back it would be as a firework. There is a memo from an FBI official to Hoover, forwarding that letter West wrote expressing her concern that her article on the hydrogen bomb and the dangers of radioactivity would be taken the wrong way by the FBI. The memo notes that “apparently Miss West envisions some chain reaction to her article among intelligence circles… .” The official’s metaphor of the chain reaction is appropriate. West thought of herself as producing fissionable material, nuclear reactions that could set off political explosions. I sympathize with those FBI agents attempting to track her dialectical arguments. As her recently released FBI file suggests, the repercussions of Rebecca West’s protean imagination have yet to be investigated.

 


 

Appendix


The Rebecca West– Doris Stevens file, 1947–1959

The correspondence between Rebecca West and Doris Stevens reveals the post–World War II climate in which West’s anti-Communism flourished. She often felt besieged, and her feelings of persecution propelled her toward the FBI. The letters also reveal the way she believed that Communists and fellow travelers worked to undermine and to discredit the work of anti-Communists, and her determination to fight back.C.R.

 

October 26, 1947: I was falsely charged with slandering one of the Labour M.P.’s… . They thought they had got enough on me to shut me up, then started a campaign against me in the New Statesman. The second stage of the campaign was a letter from an American living in London called Robert Solo—accusing me of anti-Semitism. Now, I have a recollection of seeing his name in connection with the New Masses or some other Communist paper. Can you help me on this?

August 29, 1948: [Don Hollenbeck, in CBS Looks at the Press] blasted me in an incredible script—concentrating on the fact that I was old, fat, and ugly, and owned Jersey cows —on my Wallace Convention articles. Then, a fortnight later, came back to it. Then his whim was to piece together my Evening Standard articles in such a way that he could frame a piece together informing the United States that I had written articles for England which were anti-American and anti-Negro… . Now, the significant thing about this is that the London Daily Worker had started to blast me as anti-Negro; and my leak in the Communist camp tells me that the London Daily Worker was busily working on my material… . Can we put the heat on him [Hollenbeck]?

December 29, 1948: I imagine that the Hiss and Chambers case as it develops gives you something that you feel worth while—at least people are having their eyes open… . There is a complete misapprehension as to what has happened, and I have found it uphill work convincing people there is something which is going on… .

June 7, 1950: Thank you for that armful of reports from the Un-American Activities Committee.

August 21, 1950, DS to RW : Ben Mandel of the Un-Am.Actc.Cttee staff wrote me he had “solved the difficulty of putting me on the list for an extra copy of everything” which I could send to you.

October 25, 1950, DS to RW : My memo to you [about Elizabeth Bentley] is based on notes taken down from her miles of talk, boiled down and read back to her and approved by her… .

January 14, 1951: Did I write you about the Elizabeth B stuff? Because it was superb… . I have done a review of Alistair Cooke’s iniquitous book on the Hiss case in Time & Tide (which I enclose) and have written a much longer review for the University of Chicago Law Review. Dick Crossman (the Labour M.P.) is trying to fix up a dialogue on it between us on the radio, but you know how strong Communist influence is there. I have tried to do what I can for the Toledano & Lasky book, which has had a poor show… . I have used those Committee reports well … I am not mentioning Elizabeth B.’s book in my chapter because her book will be out long before mine, but I will boost her book good and hard, and hope to find an opportunity for doing so quite soon.

April 26, 1951: I believe Chambers—tho’ I don’t like or trust him—why wasn’t Hiss sentenced for espionage instead of perjury —why was Chambers protecting him and others involved, in the State Department. … I couldn’t help thinking that Chambers and others were in love with Hiss and C was afraid that the story would come out —Jan says I have a low mind—well, I have, so what?

May 25, 1951: I am writing six articles of a popular kind for Everybody Weekly—the Canadian Spy Ring, the Hiss case, the Atom Scientists, the Rosenbergs—not because I want to, I can ill spare the time, but nobody else is telling the story.

June 9, 1951: About the F.O. men: Burgess, the Far Eastern boy, came into my life when I was fighting a lone hand for Mihailovitch during the war. A MOST SUSPICIOUS CHARACTER in the F.O. introduced himself to Henry and tried to lay the foundations of a beautiful friendship, but I would have none of it. For one thing because I knew he was in a set of Communist writers and painters of the rich pansy or promiscuous set. I forgot him … I forgot him so completely that there was a funny scene on Election Night when we went to Lord Kemsley’s party and friends asked us to have supper at their table. I sat next to this young man, who was not a friend of my friends but of some friends of theirs to whom they were united solely by business interests. He recalled that we had met, and presently I remembered that he had been one of the anti-Mihailovitch boys, and coldly asked him if he was a friend of the MOST SUSPICIOUS CHARACTER and another one. When he said, “Yes,” with a sweet smile, I turned my back on him. Afterwards, Henry (who had missed all this) told me it was Burgess. … I have always felt that there is a Communist very high up in the Foreign Office… . I have tried for years to get Orme Sargent, the former head of the F.O., to take this seriously but he wasn’t a Communist but was a damned fool.

September 22, 1951: What a story! I cannot think how anybody could have doubted Elizabeth Bentley’s story for a moment, there was so much collaborative material. It shows the strength of the movement to bewitch the press.

December 8, 1951: Elizabeth B is a queer fish, because she does not know what it is all about, even yet… . I admire her character and I am glad she acted as she did, but she does not seem to me a true anti-Communist. She would have stayed right there if Mr. Golos had not passed on to the next world.

February 5, 1952: It is absurd when a known anti-Communist like Graham Greene is denied a visa, it is worse when a scientist like Michael Polanyi, who is one of the most steadying anti-Red influences on young communists, and who has immense prestige owing to his unique talents, is prevented from entering America. I know Polanyi, and I know he is all right. If you can get me the American view of him I should be most grateful. I say it solemnly —this is a disaster.

February 6, 1952: Francis Biddle is certainly not a Communist or a fellow-traveller, but a damned fool, and he feels uncomfortable about the number of people he cleared when he was A.G. That is all I should say there was to it in his case, and anyways he cannot put a foot right just now.

April 21, 1952: I have reviewed Chambers’ book for the Atlantic Monthly. A queer, queer creature, and one of those that never quite get the poison out of their blood. He talks a great deal of nonsense about the Communists, talking about the Party as if it were the early Church instead of the vast pork-barrel that it is.

August 28, 1952: In the beginning of a most mysterious political campaign! Practically no faction of either party is happy about what is going on. Only the commies & their followers are pleased. Everything is so inter-meshed now, the Kremlin might well be pushing the buttons. You have to be here to believe it. Otherwise, it’s past belief.

November 10, 1952, DS to RW : The only disappointment I had about your review of Lattimore’s book was that you had to be so prudent. I understand why, libel laws being what they are.

February 13, 1953: The Sunday Times has asked me to write two long, really long, hallelujah, articles on the Hiss Case and its aftermath. 3,500 words each. I intend to do a lot about the infiltration of the Civil Service… . I am so damned mad that my Tito Speaks review was killed. And so damned mad that Margaret Rhondda has been got hold of by a Foreign Office pork-barrel-pink (Charles Peake) and turned pro-Tito. But this opportunity partly consoles me.

March 30, 1953: I think that Senator McCarthy has put his foot in it badly, over the fleet of ships business, and I wish to God he had handled the Bohlen business differently. I wish he wasn’t so much associated with the Investigation business, for which you and Jon[athan Mitchell, Stevens’s husband and an editor at National Review] among other people have done far more. My references to him may not please you, but not for one minute do I let go of the principle of the thing.

March 31, 1953: We are getting shoals of letters over my Sunday Times articles—all terrified of McCarthy, whom they think of as an ogre that eats professors for breakfast.

August 21, 1953: I am being attacked right left and centre all the time, and feel much refreshed by such letters as I had the other day from Bertram D. Wolfe, which I felt an honour… . I did get a horrid feeling when I heard that there was a whispering campaign in London that I had gone mad, and that my articles on Communism were part of my madness. But I knew I was letting myself in for trouble when I decided to write these articles, and it is even a consolation to think that there cannot be many more years for people to do me hard, since really this policy of appeasement is so shameful. I think the reason for it here is that we are too tired by two wars, we are as France was after the First World War—but I wish to God we would be honest and say so, and not pretend that we were doing the right thing and wouldn’t do differently if we could.

November 23, 1953: Normally I make about a hundred and twenty pounds a month from newspaper articles and weekly articles and reviews. My income during this period [since March] has been nil. (I don’t mean this is the whole of my income, this is my British journalistic income, my bread and butter, on which the rest is kept for larger expenditures). Furthermore, the people in the Sunday Times who loathed my articles have been spreading the story that I am insane, asylum insane, and am not safe to employ or know. I shall weather this. But it is unpleasant, though as I knew I was in for some unpleasantness when I wrote those articles it is at least not a shock… . The real tragedy of the situation is Eisenhower’s fatal weakness. They thought nothing of him at Columbia University, you know, because he was such an eternal compromiser. He never stood by anything or anybody, he fiddled. I don’t think he holds aloof from Brownell and the anti-Communist campaign because he disapproves of what they do but because he can’t bear to be attacked by the Democrats, which is a damn silly attitude for a Republican President. He should have talked out the situation relating to the scandal of the Democratic administration’s infiltration long ago, and given his Party a line. He should have controlled Senator McCarthy; he shouldn’t do this obliquely by letting the War Department give the impression that there was nothing of Communist infiltration in the Signals Corps, when the fact that there was is written into the Rosenberg trials. I fear he is a bad President, and that may be very awkward for us… .

July 1, 1955: The horrid Communism of people like these Oxford dons. It is all a mixture of greed and snobbery trying to keep its position in case of a revolution.

April 3, 1959: [RW’s daughter-in-law Kitty] then added to her charm by telling me lightheartedly that yes, she had once been a Communist. “We all were,” she said happily because of certain events. Now, I have asked her again and again if [RW’s son] Anthony was ever a Communist, explaining to her that I wanted the knowledge in order not to hurt but to protect Anthony. She has denied any connection with the Party. I didn’t quite believe her, and I threw myself on the mercy of the American authorities, with the aid of Norris, and told them that it might be that Anthony had been a Communist but that it would be a terrible thing if he were deported, and his naturalisation revoked, for his only chance of happiness lay in the States, and if he were sent back here he would certainly blame me and I would be terrified for my peace, if not for my life… .

October 16, 1953, DS to RW : As to Anthony: As everybody knows, practically all normal children go through a period of resentment against their parents when they are getting up their courage to leave home. When I stop to think about it, what is communism but an attempt to institutionalize that otherwise transitory emotion? Marx saw his problem as breaking the continuity of family and community attitudes. Only thus could the world get a new start. How important this became we all know from Communist children denouncing parents, etc… . Which leads me to my point: Isn’t it possible that Anthony’s lack of tenderness toward you comes … from his being overtaken by the party at a critical point so that as long as he remains under Communist influence he’ll be perpetually in that phase just as a wooly mammoth overtaken by a glacier in Siberia remains fresh, tender and edible after twenty thousand years?

 

Notes
Go to the top of the document.

 

  1. FOIA requests often take a long time to process. Federal agencies have been slow to comply with the law—partly because it is time-consuming to retrieve files, black out names (for so-called national security reasons), and then photocopy the file contents. I was in a hurry when doing my Hellman biography, having been given only fifteen months to complete the book by my publisher, St. Martin’s Press. And I had a feisty Detroit congressman, George Crockett, known for his fearless attacks on government secrecy. Go back to the text.
  2. The phrase “orgiastic loquacity” appears in an article West wrote for the London Daily News, August 9, 1917, which expresses her doubts about the Bolsheviks. The article is reprinted in The Young Rebecca, edited by Jane Marcus (Indiana University Press, 1982). Go back to the text.
  3. Alexander Mitchell Palmer (1872–1936) was the U.S. attorney general from 1919 to 1921. At his direction, three thousand allegedly subversive aliens were arrested for deportation. Most were eventually released, with only about two hundred people actually being deported. Go back to the text.
  4. For more information on West’s attitude toward McCarthyism and American liberals, see my Rebecca West: A Life (Scribner, 1996) and “Rebecca West and the God That Failed,” Wilson Quarterly (Summer 1996). Go back to the text.

Carl Rollyson is Professor of Journalism at Baruch College, CUNY. He is at work on a biography of Amy Lowell.


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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 16 February 1998, on page 12

Copyright © 2014 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.com

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