In mid-March, the Wall Street Journal carried a long discussion of the origins of the Bretton Woods system, the international financial framework that governed the Western world for decades after World War II. A photo showed the two individuals who negotiated that agreement. Britain was represented by John Maynard Keynes, a towering economic figure of that era. America’s representative was Harry Dexter White, assistant secretary of the Treasury and long a central architect of American economic policy, given that his nominal superior, Secretary Henry Morgenthau Jr., was a gentleman farmer with no background in finance. White was also a Communist agent.
Such a situation was hardly unique in American government during the 1930s and 1940s. For example, when a dying Franklin Roosevelt negotiated the outlines of postwar Europe with Joseph Stalin at the 1945 Yalta summit, one of his important advisors was Alger Hiss, a State Department official whose primary loyalty was to the Soviet side. Over the last 20 years, John Earl Haynes, Harvey Klehr, and other scholars have conclusively established that many dozens or even hundreds of Soviet agents once honeycombed the key policy staffs and nuclear research facilities of our federal government, constituting a total presence perhaps approaching the scale suggested by Sen. Joseph McCarthy, whose often unsubstantiated charges tended to damage the credibility of his position.
The Cold War ended over two decades ago and Communism has been relegated to merely an unpleasant chapter in the history books, so today these facts are hardly much disputed. For example, liberal Washington Post blogger Ezra Klein matter-of-factly referred to White as a “Soviet spy” in the title of his column on our postwar financial system. But during the actual period when America’s government was heavily influenced by Communist agents, such accusations were widely denounced as “Red-baiting” or ridiculed as right-wing conspiracy paranoia by many of our most influential journalists and publications. In 1982 liberal icon Susan Sontag ruefully acknowledged that for decades the subscribers to the lowbrow Readers Digest had received a more realistic view of the world than those who drew their knowledge from the elite liberal publications favored by her fellow intellectuals. I myself came of age near the end of the Cold War and always vaguely assumed that such lurid tales of espionage were wildly exaggerated. I was wrong.
The notion of the American government being infiltrated and substantially controlled by agents of a foreign power has been the stuff of endless Hollywood movies and television shows, but for various reasons such popular channels have never been employed to bring the true-life historical example to wide attention. I doubt if even one American in a hundred today is familiar with the name “Harry Dexter White” or dozens of similar agents.
The realization that the world is often quite different from what is presented in our leading newspapers and magazines is not an easy conclusion for most educated Americans to accept, or at least that was true in my own case. For decades, I have closely read the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and one or two other major newspapers every morning, supplemented by a wide variety of weekly or monthly opinion magazines. Their biases in certain areas had always been apparent to me. But I felt confident that by comparing and contrasting the claims of these different publications and applying some common sense, I could obtain a reasonably accurate version of reality. I was mistaken.
Aside from the evidence of our own senses, almost everything we know about the past or the news of today comes from bits of ink on paper or colored pixels on a screen, and fortunately over the last decade or two the growth of the Internet has vastly widened the range of information available to us in that latter category. Even if the overwhelming majority of the unorthodox claims provided by such non-traditional web-based sources is incorrect, at least there now exists the possibility of extracting vital nuggets of truth from vast mountains of falsehood. Certainly the events of the past dozen years have forced me to completely recalibrate my own reality-detection apparatus.
Thoughtful individuals of all backgrounds have undergone a similar crisis of confidence during this same period. Just a few months after 9/11 New York Times columnist Paul Krugman argued that the sudden financial collapse of the Enron Corporation represented a greater shock to the American system than the terrorist attacks themselves, and although he was widely denounced for making such an “unpatriotic” claim, I believe his case was strong. Although the name “Enron” has largely vanished from our memory, for years it had ranked as one of America’s most successful and admired companies, glowingly profiled on the covers of our leading business magazines, and drawing luminaries such as Krugman himself to its advisory board; Enron Chairman Kenneth Lay had been a top contender for Treasury secretary in President George W. Bush’s administration. Then in the blink of an eye, the entire company was revealed to be an accounting fraud from top to bottom, collapsing into a $63 billion bankruptcy, the largest in American history. Other companies of comparable or even greater size such as WorldCom, Tyco, Adelphia, and Global Crossing soon vanished for similar reasons.
Part of Krugman’s argument was that while the terrorist attacks had been of an entirely unprecedented nature and scale, our entire system of financial regulation, accounting, and business journalism was designed to prevent exactly the sort of frauds that brought down those huge companies. When a system fails so dramatically at its core mission, we must wonder which of our other assumptions are incorrect.
Just a few years later, we saw an even more sweeping near-collapse of our entire financial system, with giant institutions such as Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, Wachovia, and AIG falling into bankruptcy, and all our remaining major banks surviving only due to the trillions of dollars in government bailouts and loan guarantees they received. Once again, all our media and regulatory organs had failed to anticipate this disaster.
Or take the remarkable case of Bernie Madoff. His colossal investment swindle had been growing unchecked for over three decades under the very noses of our leading financial journalists and regulators in New York City, ultimately reaching the sum of $65 billion in mostly fictional assets. His claimed returns had been implausibly steady and consistent year after year, market crashes or not. None of his supposed trading actually occurred. His only auditing was by a tiny storefront firm. Angry competitors had spent years warning the SEC and journalists that his alleged investment strategy was mathematically impossible and that he was obviously running a Ponzi scheme. Yet despite all these indicators, officials did nothing and refused to close down such a transparent swindle, while the media almost entirely failed to report these suspicions.