Theodore Draper, Freelance Historian, Is Dead at 93

Historians in the News

Theodore Draper, a combative historian and social critic and one of the last of a generation of freelance intellectuals who wrote and lectured largely without academic affiliations or formal credentials, died yesterday at his home in Princeton, N.J. He was 93. His death was announced by his wife, Priscilla.

Mr. Draper went from Communist Party fellow traveler in the 1930's to liberal anticommunist in the 1950's and 60's before breaking with the Cold War hawks and attacking the United States' role in Vietnam. For a time he was also the leading historian of American Communism, writing two authoritative books about it.

Mr. Draper was dogged in pursuit of whatever issue caught his attention, whether it was France's collapse on the eve of World War II, Fidel Castro's Cuban revolution, the American war in Vietnam, Henry Kissinger's conduct of Middle East policy or the Reagan administration's Iran-contra affair. On each of these subjects he made himself a respected expert and wrote a book exhaustive in its research. His prose was blunt and factual, its logic severe and pitiless. His pithy judgment of the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 as "a perfect failure" became the earmark of that misadventure. As he said in his preface to "A Present of Things Past," a collection of his essays published in 1990: "I have rarely stayed with a single subject for more than five years. I get interested in a subject; I devote myself to it; I do what I can with it; I know — or think I know — as much as I want to know; I turn to something else."

Among the most productive of those five-year periods was the first half of the 1950's, when he completed his volumes on American Communism, part of a project under the auspices of the Ford Foundation. Anti-Communists in particular embraced Mr. Draper's conclusion that "each generation had to discover for itself in its own way that, even at the price of virtually committing political suicide, American Communism would continue above all to serve the interests of Soviet Russia."

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