A mythical vision of a non-meddling military
Reviewed by Charles Bussey
Vol. 14, No. 2, 1992, pp. 25-27
Negative Intelligence: The Army and the American Left, 1917-1941 by Roy Talbert, Jr. (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1991, xiv, 303 pages).
In October 1989, I sat in St. James Episcopal Church at Hyde Park, New York. Walter Cronkite received the Freedom of Speech Award at the FDR Four Freedoms Celebration, and he said:
Government cannot be allowed to conduct its business behind closed doors. Those citizens
who don’t demand to know what their government is doing in their names are assuming a dangerous liability.
Cronkite’s words moved me then. After reading Roy Talbert’s book, Negative Intelligence, four years later, they make me want to preach!
A historian at the University of South Carolina’s Coastal College, Professor Talbert served as an Army officer assigned to the Counterintelligence Division of the Office of the Assistant Chief of Staff for Intelligence in the 1970s. His interest in writing a history of military surveillance of American radicals began with that assignment.
Surprised by the volume of material for the pre-1941 period, Talbert chose to close this volume with that date.
It is necessary to make a distinction between “positive” and “negative” intelligence, as they were in that time defined. The former involves obtaining supposedly useful information about the enemy. The latter, clearly dangerous to America’s own freedom, was concerned with “opposing the enemy’s effort to use undercover agents to learn about or to harm one’s own side.” The term “negative” is no longer used. The nearest approximation today is “counterintelligence.”
Talbert discovered that pre-World War II Military Intelligence was consistently more concerned with countering leftist or reform forces within America than with foreign spies.
A list of organizations and people who were under watch included: the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), the ACLU, the NAACP, an oldie called the Committee of Forty-Eight, Scott Nearing, Eleanor Roosevelt, Reinhold Niebuhr, Joseph Lash, Herbert Croly, Will Durant, Arthur Schlesinger, Sr. The list goes on.
According to Talbert, the tale “is a dark and bizarre
story, and there were days when I came up from the microfilm reader… depressed over the misdeeds of my countrymen.”
Clearly dismayed over his findings, and the fact that efforts to keep the Army out of domestic issues consistently failed, always did at the first hint to social crisis, Talbert’s story makes Cronkite’s warning in 1989 all the more poignant. With the incompetent leadership America suffers under today, social crisis looms large on the horizon. And with it, more “negative intelligence”?
It’s up to us–as concerned American citizens–to demand more from our elected leaders, to want and demand openness and public accountability. We didn’t get it from Military Intelligence between 1917 and 1941; let’s want, and demand, it now.
One person under scrutiny in 1941 was Williams College professor Max Lerner. His “sin”? He favored ‘a new world order’! Also, according to Talbert’s information, some intelligence agents said that Lerner used “the word democracy” as a synonym for socialism.
Despite delimination agreements of 1941-42, which restricted domestic surveillance to J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, the Army remained in the field. One man, Ralph H. Van Deman, was clearly the founding father of military intelligence.
His story from 1915 until his death in 1952 is enough to frighten anyone with the merest interest in the Bill of Rights. Van Deman served “negative intelligence” both in the government and as a private citizen.
In fact, one of the terrifying features of this horror tale is the close relationship between military intelligence and private super-patriot groups. Van Deman a J. Edgar Hoover fan. In 1937 (by then he was retired), he offered Hoover his files on people and groups he considered subversive. This file was substantial; he had 85,000 index cards!
Hoover refused, Van Deman’s index cards were of a different size than the FBI’s making a merger difficult. Besides, according to Hoover, “‘We apparently have all pertinent material anyway.'”
Talbert’s book is thoroughly researched; his bibliographic essay will be immensely helpful to anyone interested in the subject; the prose is serviceable. My hope is that he-and others who read his book–will take chunks of this tale and retell it for the public in Op-Ed pages across the nation.
As Talbert recognizes, “Most Americans… have had a pristine vision of a country unencumbered by a meddling army. Like so much else in history, that belief turns out to be largely mythical.”
Myths are wonderful ways to tell great and powerful stories.
But in this case Americans need the plain truth.
Charles Bussey is a historian at Western Kentucky University (where he is also this year’s president of a vigorous American Association of University Professors (AAUP) chapter).