The Rosenbergs in the 21st century

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Julius and Ethel Rosenberg

We’ve been looking at the case of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the first civilians in American history to be executed for treason. As we mentioned yesterday, the testimony of Ethel’s brother, David Greenglass, was released in July, and big-media reporters who were unfamiliar with the case were quick to fall for the claim that the testimony proved Ethel’s innocence. On August 11, the Rosenbergs’ sons, Robert and Michael Meeropol, published a piece in the Times claiming that the testimony “demonstrates conclusively that our mother was prosecuted primarily for refusing to turn on our father” and calling on President Obama “to acknowledge that Ethel Rosenberg was wrongly convicted and executed.”

ros10Radosh and another expert on the case, Steven D. Usdin, were quick to reply, writing in a letter to the Times that, whatever the Meeropols’ interpretation of Greenglass’s testimony, declassified KGB documents “show that Ethel helped Julius and David’s wife, Ruth, recruit David into their Soviet network. They also reveal that Ethel was present at meetings with Soviet intelligence officers and American spies for the Soviet Union, and that she actively participated in the crime for which they were convicted, conspiracy to commit espionage.”

You’d think that by now, with the truth having come out, the Rosenberg controversy would be over. Nope. The people who said all along that the Rosenbergs were guilty have been vindicated. But so what? The Soviet Union may be gone – but Marxism has triumphed in the American academy. So when the topic of the Rosenbergs comes up in college courses, ideology all too often trumps fact. Recently, a popular cultural website published an essay about the Rosenbergs by an American Studies student named Bailey Zukovich. Her take on the subject helps illuminate what young people today are being taught about the Cold War, Soviet Communism, mid twentieth-century America – and, yes, the Rosenbergs.

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Josef Stalin, whose main offense was apparently that he presided over a “way of life” that too many Americans viewed as “backwards and unfamiliar”

Some excerpts from Zukovich’s piece: “The Cold War era marked a time of fear and paranoia in the United States….Communism was the enemy, a way of life that was backwards and unfamiliar. These pervasive fears led to hypersensitivity among Americans to potential spies living amongst the population.” The Rosenbergs? “Their normality was perhaps the most terrifying thing about them to Americans of the time.” And Ethel? “Reexamining Ethel through a contemporary lens, she can be viewed as a woman who refused to accept the conformity that was expected of her as the ideal 1950’s woman. Ethel seemed like more of a threat in the public mind because of her failure to adhere to the proper gender role….Whether or not she was a communist was less important than her lack of the expected 1950’s femininity.”

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Ethel Rosenberg, feminist icon?

When twenty-first-century American kids are being taught to perform this kind of historical “analysis,” it seems depressingly likely that in the years to come, the Rosenbergs will emerge as more sympathetic figures than ever – with Ethel, in particular, being hailed as a feminist heroine whose transcendence of traditional gender roles made her a veritable combination of, oh, say, Eleanor Roosevelt, Amelia Earhart, Dorothy Thompson, and Martha Gellhorn.

Useful stoogery is, alas, endlessly resilient and resourceful.

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