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Scholar, Historian Theodore Draper

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 23, 2006

Theodore Draper, 93, an independent scholar and social critic who wrote skillfully about the history of American communism, racism and abuses of executive power, died Feb. 20 at his home in Princeton, N.J. He had a stroke three years ago.

Mr. Draper spent years immersed in libraries and public records. He could plumb official documents for revealing details and transform them into a meaningful explanation of world history and its consequences for American democracy.

As a regular contributor to the New Leader, Encounter, Commentary and the New York Review of Books, he scolded government officials of all political persuasions for what became his overriding concern: the lack of accountability among leaders.

His analysis of the Bay of Pigs fiasco in 1961 as "one of those rare events in history -- a perfect failure" was much quoted by scholars.

He enhanced his reputation with a definitive study of the mid-1980s Iran-contra matter, in which U.S. officials covertly sold arms to Iran to win the release of U.S. hostages in the Middle East and used some of the profits to support Nicaraguan rebels known as the contras.

His book "A Very Thin Line" (1991) delved into 50,000 pages of private hearings released through official investigations of the matter. He probed presidential authority and its conflicts with other branches of government. He made cutting observations about the principal players in the scandal, noting of President Ronald Reagan that although the chief executive "complained that he had not been told 'everything,' it hardly meant that he had been told nothing."

"The Iran-Contra affairs are not a warning for our days alone," he later wrote. "If the story of the affairs is not fully known and understood, a similar usurpation of power by a small, strategically placed group within the government may well recur before we are prepared to recognize what is happening."

Peter Kornbluh, a director of the Iran-contra project at the National Security Archive in Washington, said: "At the time, a number of people were writing on Iran-contra, but no one was writing with the cogency and sharpness of the critique he offered."

Mr. Draper had a crisp, largely irascible personality that gave him reclusive tendencies. He was vehement about his privacy and adamant about those he liked and did not. This resulted in occasional parries in print with fellow authors or officials, notably in the New York Review of Books with then-Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger.

Robert B. Silvers, co-editor of the review, said of Mr. Draper: "Above all, he was a man of extremely demanding moral judgment. He was contemptuous of men who made moral compromises in dealing with life-and-death matters, like the Vietnam War, for example, or the Iran-contra matter."

Mr. Draper was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., on Sept. 11, 1912. He was the second of four children of immigrants from what is now Ukraine. After his father's death in 1924, his mother ran a candy store to support the family and also changed the family surname, initially Dubinsky, out of fear that anti-Semitism would harm her children's career success.

A philosophy graduate of Brooklyn College, he abandoned his Columbia University history studies to join communist publications, including the Daily Worker and the New Masses.

According to his obituary in the New York Times, Mr. Draper, then foreign editor of the New Masses, believed that the Soviet-German "non-aggression" pact of 1939 would not hold and that the Germans would soon attack the Soviet Union. This view, which was correct, was not shared by his bosses, and he left -- the magazine and much of his sympathy for the cause.

Another falling-out occurred in the 1950s when he was briefly editor of Reporter magazine, insisting to its founder that Cuban revolutionary Fidel Castro was not a devoted communist. Mr. Draper later wrote essay collections highly skeptical of Castro's leadership.

After Army service in World War II, during which he wrote a history of the 84th Infantry Division, he wrote prolifically for magazines and gained his first wide notice with the books "The Roots of American Communism" (1957) and "American Communism and Soviet Russia" (1960).

In each volume, Mr. Draper scoured secret minutes of the party's executive meetings and analyzed with a biting rigor its evolution in the United States.

Settled in Princeton since 1968, he spent five years with the Institute for Advanced Study. During that period, he wrote "The Rediscovery of Black Nationalism" (1970), which used the past to illuminate contemporaneous discussion.

He scolded the "back-to-Africa" movement as "a white fantasy to get rid of blacks, and a black fantasy to get ride of whites."

"It is high time," he wrote, "for both whites and blacks to get rid of their fantasies instead of each other. Once that sinks in, we may begin to look forward to something better."

When he felt he had exhausted his interest in a subject, Mr. Draper handed his dossiers to newer generations of historians. His Cuba files went to Hugh S. Thomas, and those on the Communist Party were passed to Harvey Klehr.

Mr. Draper took up the recorder and played Renaissance music with an amateur musical group in Princeton.

His marriages to Dorothy Sapan Draper and Evelyn Manacher Draper ended in divorce.

Survivors include his third wife, Priscilla Barnum, a medieval scholar, of Princeton; a son from his first marriage; four stepchildren; a brother; a sister; and a grandson.

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