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.

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, “citizens of the world”

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Julius and Ethel Rosenberg

We’re on the third day of our probe into the history of the useful stooges who spent decades standing up for Soviet atom spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. We’ve seen that for those who accept evidence and reason, the debate about the Rosenbergs should, quite simply be over. But, as Rosenberg scholar Ron Radosh observed in 2011, “the descendants of the people who proclaimed the Rosenbergs’ innocence have now begun yet another campaign to rehabilitate them. They now argue that although it appears Julius Rosenberg was a Soviet spy after all, he gave little of value to the Soviets, was motivated by the desire to stave off atomic war, and in any case had nothing to do with handing over atomic information of any kind to the Soviet Union.”

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Staughton Lynd

Among these revisionists is Staughton Lynd, whose Wikipedia page identifies him as “an American conscientious objector, Quaker, peace activist and civil rights activist, tax resister, historian, professor, author and lawyer.” Lynd, wrote Radosh,

ros8objects to what he calls the triumphalism of those like me who have asserted [the Rosenbergs’ guilt] for years. More important for Lynd is that the couple refused to “snitch,” therefore making themselves heroes. He maintains that their trial was a “sham,” and he argues that even if they were guilty, they must be viewed as unadulterated heroes. Why? Because, he actually writes, the couple had “obligations as Communists, and as citizens of the world.” So, to Lynd, the Rosenbergs’ obligation to spy for Josef Stalin stands above any loyalty to their own country, not to speak of their willingness to make their own children orphans. Secondly, Lynd believes that if the Rosenbergs helped the Soviets get the bomb, that “might have been justified,” since he believes Soviet strength stopped aggression by the American imperialists.

Historian Howard Zinn discussed war, imprisonment, government, and the death penalty in Mandel Hall last Saturday. The event was held by The Campaign to End the Death Penalty.
Howard Zinn

As Radosh noted, Lynd’s argument reveals “the desperation some on the left have to descend to in order to maintain their view that the only guilty party was the United States.” Another example of this desperation: the late historian Howard Zinn, who wrote that what mattered about the Rosenbergs was not the question of whether they were spies but the fact that they hadn’t received a fair trial because of “cold war hysteria.” As Radosh commented: “That statement would have had some credibility if Zinn had acknowledged the couple’s guilt. But of course he argued that most of the witnesses against them were lying. No one on the left, it seems, is willing to offer any condemnation for the way in which the Rosenbergs betrayed their own country.”

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David Greenglass

In July of this year, the grand jury testimony of Ethel Rosenberg’s brother and fellow spy David Greenglass was made public. The New York Times and other major media, as Radosh noted, “rushed to the conclusion that this transcript proves the innocence of Ethel Rosenberg.” But only someone entirely ignorant of the case, and of the abundant evidence establishing Ethel’s guilt, could believe any such thing. The Guardian, as Radosh pointed out, ended its article on the subject “quoting a leftist true believer, Ilene Philipson, who tells the paper, ‘There was never really any solid evidence that she had been involved in any part of espionage.’ To the contrary, there is substantial evidence that Ethel Rosenberg was guilty as charged. Journalists could have found that evidence if they had taken the time to look.”

We’ll wrap this up tomorrow.