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Originally published Sunday, November 22, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Book review

'The Anti-Communist Manifestos: Four Books That Shaped The Cold War'

In "The Anti-Communist Manifestos," John V. Fleming writes a history of four books that transformed world history by telling the grim story of communism.

Special to The Seattle Times

"The Anti-Communist Manifestos: Four Books That Shaped the Cold War"

by John V. Fleming

W.W. Norton, 352 pp., $27.95

Communism had many friends in the 1940s, and came to have a bad name in the West only after much evidence had been piled on. "The Anti-Communist Manifestos" is the story of the piling-on and the resistance to it. It contains four essays, each about the public battle over a book.

The author, John V. Fleming, spent 40 years at Princeton University as a specialist of the Middle Ages. He is a skilled researcher and a fine writer, and tells this 20th century story clearly and without rancor. He also is a bookbinder, which is how his research began. He was tearing apart old volumes for their boards and picked up one he had never heard of.

It was Jan Valtin's "Out of the Night" (1941), and had been a best-seller that year. It was the life story of a Soviet agent. It followed the author from Leningrad boot camp to an insurrection in Hamburg, a stretch in San Quentin Prison and another stretch in a Nazi prison. "Out of the Night" was political only in that showed a Communist doing things no decent American would do. It was published at a time, Fleming writes, when "there were strict cultural limits to Red-baiting," and it broke through them.

Between August 1939 and June 1941, Stalin and Hitler were allies, which, thanks to anti-Nazi sentiment, made it easier to publish an anti-communist book in New York. Valtin's book came out then, as did another of the four, "Darkness at Noon" (1940), by a Hungarian, Arthur Koestler. Fleming calls it "the most politically effective novel of the past century." Its protagonist is an old Bolshevik, falsely arrested in Stalin's purges, who relives his life in flashbacks.

When the Soviet Union was an ally, anti-Soviet books were not publishable. At the war's end that began to change, and Koestler's book was published in a French edition. The result was a battle royale between Koestler and France's left-wing intellectuals, led by Jean-Paul Sartre.

"To appreciate the nature of the French debate about Koestler's novel requires the reconstruction of some modes of thought nearly vanished from the Earth," Fleming writes. The French left believed the Communists had done most of the work to defeat Hitler, that "the Western democracies were rotten to the core," and that "Darkness at Noon" was a vicious attack on the true and good.

The French left didn't like the third book, Victor Kravchenko's "I Chose Freedom" (1946), either. Kravchenko, a Soviet defector, portrayed his homeland as a place of political purges and slave-labor camps. His account made a big impression in America, and in France led to a high-profile courtroom battle.

The fourth book was Whittaker Chambers' "Witness" (1952), the autobiography of the ex-Communist agent who outed Alger Hiss as a Soviet spy. By the time the book came out, Hiss and Chambers had had their public battle. Hiss had been convicted of perjury and sent to prison. That was the McCarthy period, when Communists were out of favor, and blacklisted. That period is much remembered, but Americans have tended to forget the earlier time, in which every book that criticized the Soviet Union faced a wall of denial.

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