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With  Fay and baby Bettina, 1944

Outside his Brooklyn home, 1945

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2000

As a teenager in the early '70s, I was one of Communist theoretician Herbert Aptheker's research assistants.  I learned from him both how to cite a book and how to spin mass murder.  By 1975 I retained the former skill but renounced the latter.  Twenty-five years after that, however, Aptheker was still proud of his 1957 book-length defense of the Soviet crushing of the Hungarian revolt.  To the very end he was shocked, shocked, that his support for Soviet slavery would affect the reception of his scholarship on the American variety. 

Anthony Flood

Herbert Aptheker:

My Communist Mentor

Anthony Flood

This letter was published in The Journal of American History, 87:4, March 2001, 1598-99.

September 5, 2000

To the Editor:

As one who did research for Dr. Herbert Aptheker thirty years ago, I read with interest Professor Robin D. G. Kelley’s conversation with him.   Equally inter-esting was the “Autobiographical Note” in which Aptheker related how, by failing to respond to the U.S. Army’s letter of inquiry about his Communist political activity, he lost his commission in December 1950.  Since the letter’s chronology of allegations ended in January of that year, it could not cite Aptheker’s “The Truth about the Korean War”[1] written a few weeks after North Korea invaded the South in late June 1950.  Here’s how Aptheker portrayed the belligerents:

As soon as the reactionary and imperialist nature of the American occupation in South Korea and of its creature, the [Syngman] Rhee clique, became clear, demonstrations, strikes, uprisings and guerrilla warfare appeared once again.  These appeared . . . in South Korea onlynot in North Korea.  Uprisings come from oppression.  In North Korea the people ruledtherefore no revolts; in South Korea a new foreign master and new Korean traitors held powertherefore constant rebellion.[2]

While North Koreans were shooting at Americans, then-Major Aptheker praised the North Korean government: “no revolts” meant “the people ruled.”  Against a backdrop of American wartime casualties, his loss of commission was a rather mild consequence of his arguably treasonous speech. 

When Kelley asked him what advice he might give younger scholars, he replied: “. . . you don’t spend your time discussing whether George Washington had false teeth, but you can examine George Washington’s attitude toward slavery and toward his own slaves . . . .”  What about Communism and its slaves, its starved peasantry, forcibly resettled minorities, tortured priests, silenced scholars, entombed writers, and the millions who were simply shot?[3]  The subject never came up, perhaps because the reality of Aptheker as Communist propagandist is hard to reconcile with Kelly’s image of a benevolent and persecuted historian of African Americans.   

“Overturning racism, capitalism, and imperialism,” Kelly wrote, “were always the first order of business [for Aptheker] . . . .”  More accurately one might say his “business” was to uncover some truth about slavery here and cover up a great deal of it elsewhere.  In The Truth about Hungary the theoretician of “partisanship and objectivity” vilified Hungarian freedom fighters as fascists.[4]  In a similar vein he wrote Czechoslovakia and Counterrevolution.[5]  Again, about this side of his subject Kelly apparently doesn’t know or doesn’t care.

 Common sense suggests that while uprisings may come from oppression, extreme oppression may make them impossible.  Aptheker, however, interpreted their absence under Communism as evidence of democracy, their presence proof of foreign meddling.  Should historians ignore this when they appraise his work on slave uprisings?

 Aptheker now confesses that his lifelong allegiance to Communist regimes stemmed from a “denial of reality” that blocked out “monstrous crimes” of repression, “mass murder,” and “massive human extermination.”[6]  He has renounced his own Communist holocaust denial.  His admirers do him no service by evading it.

 

Sincerely,

Anthony Flood

Jackson Heights, NY

 

[1] Herbert Aptheker, “The Truth about the Korean War,” Masses and Mainstream, August 1950, pp. 3-24.  Reprinted in Herbert Aptheker, American Foreign Policy and the Cold War, New York: International Publishers, 1962, pp. 123-43.

[2] Ibid., p. 131.

[3] The Soviet Union, the People’s Republic of China, and other Communist regimes together murdered at least 85 million people, according to estimates documented in The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression, by Stéphane Courtois, et. al, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1999, 858 pages.

[4] Herbert Aptheker, The Truth about Hungary, New York: Mainstream Publishers, 1957, 256 pages.

[5] Herbert Aptheker, Czechoslovakia and Counterrevolution: Why the Socialist Countries Intervened, International Publishers, 1968, 30 pages.

[6] Herbert Aptheker’s comments at the XXV Convention, Communist Party, U.S.A.,  Cleveland, Ohio, December 7, 1991.

 

Dr. Aptheker's reply in the same issue:

To the Editor:

Mr. Flood's ignorance is matched by his malice. I will comment on one manifestation of boththe ignorance.

I suggest he read my study of the 1956 Hungarian events, now that he has denounced it.  The Communist Party would not publish it; something ironically called the Liberal Press would not print it, despite offers to meet the cost.

The workers at the Hungarian-language paper, published in New York, finally printed it.  Proof-reading was quite onerous!  I have reread it recently and still am not ashamed of itall the circumstances considered.

 

Herbert Aptheker

San Jose, CA

 

 

Professor Kelley declined to respond.  When The Minnesota Review interviewed Kelley a couple of years later,  he stated that he “didn't study history to be a historian. I studied history to attempt to solve a series of political problems. When I was an undergraduate, I chose history as a discipline that would allow me to look at social movements in the most holistic way. . . . So I went to graduate school to study history not to be a history professor, but to be a professional Communist. That was my thing, and I was a member of the Communist Workers' Party.”
 

Dr. Aptheker, born July 31, 1915, passed away March 17, 2003.  The following is an unpublished letter to The New York Times in response to its obituary of Aptheker.

March 22, 2003

To the Editor:

Christopher Lehmann-Haupt’s March 20 obituary of Herbert Aptheker contains several errors of commission and omission. 

Aptheker’s Documentary History of the Negro People in the United States runs to seven volumes, not three.  He edited and annotated three volumes of W.E.B. Du Bois’ correspondence and 40 volumes of his published writings, including a 600-page annotated bibliography.

The obituary fails to mention that Aptheker’s 1937 Master’s thesis was about Nat Turner’s 1831 slave revolt and written on the basis of primary source research.  This should be considered when weighing William Styron’s accusation that only politics motivated Aptheker’s criticism of his novel.

The title of Aptheker’s Columbia dissertation was American Negro Slave Revolts and chosen for its assonance with that of Ulrich Bonnell Phillips’ American Negro Slavery, to whose characterization of slaves the dissertation was opposed.  By February 12, 1942, when Aptheker enlisted in the Army, he had completed almost all of the requirements for his doctorate: the awarding of the degree was contingent upon the dissertation’s being published, which it was the following year.

Yale University’s History Department sparked a controversy in 1976 when it refused to sponsor Aptheker’s seminar on Du Bois.  The reason for the refusal, articulated by Yale Professor C. Vann Woodward, was not that Aptheker was a Communist, but that he “did not measure up to the standard of scholarship desired for teachers at Yale.”  But as Aptheker lamented at the time, “If I’m not qualified to teach Du Bois, what am I qualified to teach?”  Yale’s scholarly standards were apparently no barrier to Howard Cosell who taught “Big Time Sports and Contemporary America” during the same semester.

Aptheker’s run for a congressional seat in 1966 was not “his only major attempt at elective office,” for he lost to Daniel Patrick Moynihan in New York’s senatorial race a decade later.  Aptheker later joked that the F.B.I. was still looking for the 25,000 people who voted for him.

Aptheker’s military career is summarized, but not its inglorious end.  After Aptheker declined to answer the Army’s November 6, 1950 letter to him recounting his political activity over the previous decade, his commission in the Army reserves was summarily revoked on December 28.  Not listed in the Army’s litany of political offenses, however, was Aptheker’s public support of Communist North Korea in its violent conflict with South Korea and the United States, in whose Army he had held the rank of Major and Instructor at the War College only a few years before.

The obituary gives the impression that Aptheker’s communist politics was all about racial equality, anti-fascism, and dissent from American foreign policy.  But one of the books of which, to the very end of his life, he was most proud of having written was The Truth about Hungary in 1956.   There he defended, against the sensibilities of even most American Communists, the Soviet invasion of Hungary and crushing of the revolt of its slaves.

A refrain in Aptheker’s writings is that partisanship with oppressors is a reason to suspect the suppression of truth.  Tragically, he did not see that precept’s relevance to the reception of his own scholarship.

 

Yours truly,

Anthony Flood

Jackson Heights, NY 

P.S.: In the early ‘70s Dr. Aptheker employed me as one of his research assistants for his Du Bois pro-jects.  He acknowledged the help of many including myself in the Annotated Bibliography of the Published Writings of W. E. B. Du Bois (Millwood, NY: Kraus-Thomson, 1973) and The Correspondence of W. E. B. Du Bois: Volume II: Selections, 1934-1944 (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1976). 

His recent defense of The Truth about Hungary may be read in his replies to a letter in The Journal of American History for December 2000 and to my letter in the March 2001 issue. [Scroll to top of this column.]

My letter, which documents Aptheker’s support for North Korea during the Korean War, was prompted by Robin D. G. Kelly’s interview in the June 2000 issue. In an “Autobiographical Note” preceding the interview, Aptheker gives an account of his discharge from the Army.

 

Post hoc, if not also propter hoc, the Times published a correction:

An obituary on March 20 about the Marxist historian Herbert Aptheker misstated the number of volumes in his ''Documentary History of the Negro People in the United States'' and the title of his doctoral dissertation. It is seven, not three; his dissertation is ''American Negro Slave Revolts,'' not ''Black Slave Revolts.'' The article also referred incompletely to Mr. Aptheker's editing of the writing of W. E. B. DuBois.  Besides correspondence, Mr. Aptheker edited 40 volumes of DuBois's published writings, including an annotated bibliography.

New York Times, Saturday, April 19, 2003, Late Edition - Final , Section A , Column 3 , Page 2