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”
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 only—not
in North Korea. Uprisings come from oppression. In North Korea the
no revolts; in South Korea a new foreign master and new Korean
traitors held power—therefore
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?
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
In a similar vein he wrote Czechoslovakia and Counterrevolution.
Again, about this side of his subject Kelly apparently doesn’t know or
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.”
He has renounced his own Communist holocaust denial. His admirers do
him no service by evading it.
Jackson Heights, NY
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.
Dr. Aptheker's reply in
the same issue:
Mr. Flood's ignorance is matched by his
malice. I will comment on one manifestation of both—the
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 it—all
the circumstances considered.
San Jose, CA
declined to respond. When The
interviewed Kelley a couple of
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
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
March 22, 2003
Christopher Lehmann-Haupt’s March 20 obituary of Herbert Aptheker
contains several errors of commission and omission.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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,
April 19, 2003,
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