Battle Lines of History

Even the esteemed Edwin Yoder apparently falls prey to misconceptions. His review of Geoffrey Perret's Lincoln's World (Book World, May 2) contains the erroneous assertion that "while Washington was spooked by the phantom possibility of rebel invasion. . . . Nor was Washington ever seriously threatened -- not even by Jubal Early's legendary raid." This is certainly a judgement call by Yoder, and he would do well to probe deeper into the literature. Jubal Early came within hours of breeching the fortifications on the northern side of the city at Fort Stevens on July 11, 1864 -- it was that close! His campaign was no mere raid, his intent (documented by correspondence with Robert E. Lee implying threat or actual capture if feasible) sustains the seriousness of that moment -- 140 years ago this July. The episode warrants more attention than Yoder's mere fling of the hand. It certainly concerned Abraham Lincoln to the extent he stood on Fort Stevens' parapet on July 11 and 12 -- the only time in American history when a sitting president actually suffered hostile fire.


Washington, DC

Edwin Yoder replies:

I have no wish to derogate B. Franklin Cooling's fine scholarship, and the might-have-beens of history are always intriguing to speculate about. My assumption was and is that even if Early had breached the northern defenses of Washington, as indeed he came near doing, his force was too slight to sustain the advantage and would soon have been repulsed. As Cooling says, it's a judgment call. The Union enjoyed a huge advantage in manpower, and Lee's Army was stretched thin by Grant's seige of Richmond and Petersburg and could have offered little timely assistance.

In her review of Cokie Roberts' Founding Mothers: The Women Who Raised Our Nation (April 25, 2004), Joyce Appleby suggests that Roberts takes her "inspiring tales" at "face value," and that ultimately these historical tales will be discounted, just as the heroic stories about Davy Crockett and Jessica Lynch have been discounted. Appleby is an American historian; if there are historical tall tales in America's Founding Mothers, why doesn't she tell potential readers what they are? Instead of straightforwardly discussing the book's historical evidence, she takes the academic historian's patronizing stance toward the non-academic historian, implying that though Cokie Roberts is a good storyteller, her historical knowledge isn't really up to snuff. This approach is unfair both to readers and to the book's author.

ANN WHITE, Chairwoman, History Dept.

Edmund Burke School, Washington, D.C.

Christopher Hitchens's review of Susan Jacoby's Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism (Book World, Apr. 25) is excellent, but I'm not sure that readers will appreciate the importance of Robert Green Ingersoll's place in this history. Ingersoll was much more than the "greatest anti-religious lecturer of his day"; Jacoby states that he and Thomas Paine are "the two most important figures in the history of American secularist dissent." It is astonishing today to imagine any avowed agnostic having the stature to place the name of a candidate in nomination for the presidency, as Ingersoll did at the 1876 Republican National Convention (the "Plumed Knight" speech). He delivered Walt Whitman's eulogy, which Jacoby reprints and considers a rebuttal to those who "shun the nation's freethinkers and secularists as believers in nothing." He was friends with Eugene V. Debs and strongly influenced national figures such as Robert LaFollette and Clarence Darrow, and popular writers such as Elbert Hubbard. Hitchens has a point in saying that Jacoby has "what might be called ACLU politics," but that's high praise considering that the ACLU is one of the few national voices we have still championing the separation of church and state and the embattled liberties enshrined in our Bill of Rights.


Dept. of English, Gallaudet University

Peter Eisner's review of A Secret Life (Book World, April 25) about Col. Ryszard Kuklinski, who risked his life every day for nine years to inform the West of Soviet war plans and the martial-law plans of the Polish Communist government, is eminently fair and favorable. I hesitate to offer a criticism, but Eisner writes that "in some correspondence with the CIA, [Kuklinski] spoke naively about Soviet intentions in Poland, as if Moscow's utter domination of the country and the rest of the East Bloc were open to question." Eisner does not cite the words that gave rise to this perception. I can assure him, however, that Col. Kuklinski was not naive and never harbored "any thought that Stalin and his successors cared about political independence" for Poland. That was why he turned to the Americans, who, he knew, did care.

History had taught patriotic Poles that no empire, however strong and apparently invincible it might seem, lasted forever. Like many others, Kuklinski was not at all sure he would live to see the day when Poland would be free, but he knew Soviet domination was open to question. It was that knowledge that inspired him to provide the West with the information it needed to resist successfully if the Soviet leadership should prove so foolish as to try to extend its domination to the rest of Europe.

R.T. DAVIES, U. S. Ambassador to Poland, 1973-78

Silver Spring, Md.

You might have selected a more even-handed reviewer for Bruce Craig's Treasonable Doubt: The Harry Dexter White Spy Case (Book World, April 25). Ted Morgan takes it as indisputable fact that White repeatedly "used his high office to advance Soviet interests rather than those of his own country" and that he engaged in espionage for the Soviet Union. Craig, on the other hand, finds no substantiation for the charge that White attempted to subvert government policy.

As for the accusation of espionage, Craig does not totally reject it. Like Morgan, he treats as strong evidence the "White memorandum" produced from Whittaker Chambers's celebrated pumpkin -- a document, incidentally, whose provenance and intent are subject to quite different and more probable interpretations. Nevertheless, Craig's overall approach to the unproven allegations of Chambers and Elizabeth Bentley, as well as to the fragmentary, contradictory and ambiguous evidence found in the so-called Venona decrypts, is somewhat more skeptical than Morgan's.

Rather than acknowledge that the book under review is based on years of exhaustive research and painstaking analysis, Morgan dismisses it as a "thinly disguised polemic" and a "whitewash." No doubt Morgan would apply similar labels to the work of any scholar who, although apparently having no axe to grind, put forward a more benign interpretation of the evidence than his own preconceived ideas would allow.

More open-minded readers might be interested in hearing another point of view. If so, they can refer to a succinct article entitled "The Case against Harry Dexter White: Still Not Proven," by James M. Boughton, Historian of the International Monetary Fund and Assistant Director of the IMF's Policy Development and Review Department. This article, which appeared in 2001 in the journal History of Political Economy, is readily available on the internet, under the same title, as a Working Paper of the IMF.

Harry White is safely dead and unable to confront his slanderers. But as his daughters, we wish to express our outrage at this insult to his memory, to reaffirm his innocence, and to declare our pride in his service to his country.

JOAN PINKHAM, Amherst, Mass.

RUTH LEVITAN, Stamford, Conn.