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."
Mr. Draper's insistence that American Communism had always been a tail wagged by the Soviet Union made him a lightning rod for a new generation of historians in the 1970's and 80's. These new historians, as they called themselves, were rooted in the New Left of the 1960's. In seeking to define what was native and distinct about American Communism, they attacked Mr. Draper, saying that rather than offering a social and cultural history of the party, he had taken an institutional approach obsessed with the heavy hand of the Soviet Comintern.
Mr. Draper responded to the attacks in 1985 in The New York Review of Books, accusing the new historians of waging "a curious academic campaign for the rehabilitation of American Communism."
His investigations would usually result in books, some 14 in his lifetime. But he would often vent the results of his research in long book-review essays, prompting Paul Berman to describe Mr. Draper as "an investigative book reviewer."
In a review of Norman Podhoretz's book "Why We Were in Vietnam" in The New Republic in 1982, Mr. Draper sharply criticized the author's defense of the war, saying it "represents a trend of selective moralistic zealotry which, if permitted to spread, will give both anti-Communism and neoconservatism a bad name." He called Podhoretz a "potted historian." The review reflected a sharp turn in Mr. Draper's political thinking and left Mr. Podhoretz bewildered over what he called the cruelty of the attack, especially since Mr. Draper had been a friend.
If Mr. Draper was obsessive about politics, he was equally so about his privacy. When approached by a reporter for an interview about his life, he declined and offered instead to write a statement to be sent in a sealed envelope and not opened until his death. In it, he said of his review of "Why We Were in Vietnam": "I broke with Podhoretz when he changed the political line of Commentary," a reference to what he saw as the magazine's shift to the right in the mid-1970's.
Theodore Draper was born on Sept. 11, 1912, the first of four children born to Samuel and Annie Kornblatt Dubinsky, who lived in Brooklyn. His mother changed the family name to Draper in 1932 because she thought it sounded "American" and would avert any anti-Semitism that might threaten her children's prospective academic careers. His father, a manager of shirt factories, died in 1924, leaving his widow to make ends meet running a candy store. His parents, he said in his posthumous statement, "were not members of the Communist Party."
Mr. Draper attended Boys High School in Brooklyn and then the Brooklyn branch of the City College of New York. In college he fell in with a group of older students who formed the National Student League, an ostensibly independent organization that he later found out was controlled by the Young Communist League. Although he never joined the Young Communists, he said, he continued to work in the Student League and became editor of the Young Communists' monthly publication.
After graduating from Brooklyn College, he went on to Columbia University, where he planned to take an advanced degree in history. In his second year he met the foreign editor of the Communist newspaper The Daily Worker, who hired him. Mr. Draper left The Daily Worker in 1937 to take a job as foreign editor for the Communist magazine New Masses, a position that allowed him to take his first trips to Europe. One assignment, to write about the fall of France, led to his break with the Communist Party. His prescient conclusion that the Soviet Union would be Hitler's next target contradicted the party line, and his article was rejected, prompting him to leave New Masses for the Soviet news agency Tass. But growing restive with the party line, he left Tass after only six months to take a job with a new French weekly in New York.
Out of this period came his first book, "The Six Weeks' War: France, May 10 - June 25, 1940," an intellectual history published in 1944.
In 1935 he married Dorothy Sapan, a grade-school teacher who was active in the United Federation of Teachers. They divorced in 1953. In 1960 he married Evelyn Manacher, a singer, and divorced her after he met his third wife, Priscilla Heath Barnum, a medieval scholar. She survives him, as do a son by his first wife, Roger, of New York; a brother, Robert, also of New York; a sister, Dorothy Rabkin of Ashland, Ore., and four stepchildren, Diana, Terry, Parker and Benjamin Barnum.
After serving in the Army during World War II as historian of the 84th Infantry Division, Mr. Draper returned to civilian life in 1945 and set about writing books and articles, mainly for Commentary and The Reporter, a public affairs magazine. He became The Reporter's expert on Cuba before falling out with its publisher, Max Ascoli, over Ascoli's insistence that Fidel Castro was a Communist, a point that Mr. Draper much later conceded he had been wrong about. But his knowledge of Cuba led him to accept a fellowship at the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace, at Stanford University, where he stayed until 1968. Uncomfortable with the Hoover Institution's growing conservatism, however, he left in 1968 and joined the Institute for Advanced Study, at Princeton, where he turned his attention to race relations in America and wrote "The Rediscovery of Black Nationalism" (1970). After Mr. Draper had stopped writing for Commentary, he became a regular contributor to The New York Review of Books. It was during these years that he produced "A Very Thin Line," his thorough study on the Iran-contra affair. In a review in The New Republic, Mr. Berman saw in the book all the hallmarks of Mr. Draper's life's work.
"Draper's methodical approach conjures a spirit, an ideal, that is very powerful," Mr. Berman wrote. "Rigor, thoroughness, factualness and intellectual discipline," he said, "were not exactly in fashion during the Age of Reagan, nor did they pop up very prominently in the House and Senate hearings. They are evident, however, in Draper's massive deed of citizen responsibility, and the effect is strangely moving."