Arthur Miller’s crucible

Yesterday we started exploring the life and career of the late playwright Arthur Miller, who continues to be viewed by mainstream American cultural commentators as a pillar of principle – and who, since his death in 2005, has been shown to have been an active Communist.

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Arthur Miller in 1966

Indeed, historian Ron Capshaw has shown that Miller, even after becoming a famous writer, was careful to alter his political views in accordance with changes in Party orthodoxy. To sum up these changes briefly: during the 1930s, the CPUSA rejected all non-proletarian literature (i.e., literature that did not center thematically on the oppression of the workingman by the capitalist system); in 1944, under Earl Browder, the Party became more tolerant, accepting certain kind of non-proletarian writing as legitimate; a year later, however, after Browder was replaced as head of the Party by William Foster, “Browderism” became heresy. Through all these shifts in policy, Miller kept one finger firmly in the wind, dutifully reflecting the pronouncements of the Party bosses in his plays and other writings.

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Julius and Ethel Rosenberg

Later, he would write The Crucible as an outraged reaction to the execution for treason of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, whose crime was nothing less than having helped pass the secrets of the atom bomb to the Kremlin. What’s interesting is that while he opposed the Rosenbergs’ execution, in 1949, participating in a New Masses symposium, he expressed the opinion that the American poet Ezra Pound, who had lived in Italy during the war and delivered crackpot radio speeches in support of Mussolini, should be shot. In short, while Miller viewed fascist treason as a capital crime, then, he did not see Communist treason in the same way.

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The original 1953 production of The Crucible

For Miller, indeed, Communism was no treason at all. In a 1996 article in The New Yorker, he explained that he had written The Crucible because he recognized certain experiences as universal: just as people in colonial Salem had turned the other way when their neighbors were arrested for witchcraft, and gentiles in Nazi Germany had turned away when their Jewish neighbors had been arted off to Auschwitz, so in the 1950s “the old friend of a blacklisted person” could be seen “crossing the street to avoid being seen talking to him.”

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Senator Joseph McCarthy

Note that Miller here equated Communists not with Nazis but with the Jewish victims of Nazis; the Nazis he equated with Joe McCarthy and HUAC. Four years later, writing in the Guardian, he revisited his reasons for writing The Crucible, this time ridiculing the belief, during the late 1940s and early 1950s, “that a massive, profoundly organized conspiracy was in place and carried forward mainly by a concealed phalanx of intellectuals, including labor activists, teachers, professionals, sworn to undermine the American government.”

Miller treats this “belief” as an absurdity. On the contrary, the existence in midcentury America of a large-scale intellectual conspiracy to overthrow the U.S. government is an irrefutable historical fact. Indeed, it is a fact that has become increasingly well substantiated in recent years as more and more incriminating documents from the Soviet archives have come to light.

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Nine of the Hollywood Ten

And this fact, as has often been noted, points to the central problem with The Crucible and its supposed relevance to what (thanks to Miller) came to be called the anti-Communist “witch hunt”: in seventeenth-century Salem, there were no witches; in mid twentieth-century America, there was an underground network of would-be Communist revolutionaries, and Miller was an active member of it. The executed “witches” of Salem were innocent victims; the Rosenbergs were anything but innocent, and neither were the Hollywood Ten, all of whom have been shown to be card-carrying Communists. And neither was Miller himself.

(Another failed parallel should also perhaps be pointed out: while the Salem “witches” were put to death, the Communists that HUAC and McCarthy uncovered were deprived of work by the Hollywood studios for a few years, with a few being jailed very briefly for failing to turn over subpoenaed documents. Whether or not one considers their questioning by Congress or their punishment by the studios to have been just, the fact is that most of them were extremely well-off people who did not suffer materially for having been found out as Communists.) 

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Inge Morath

Yesterday, we began our brief look at Arthur Miller by noting his image as a man of profound social conscience. One closing detail. Miller and his third wife, photographer Inge Morath, had a son, Daniel, who was born with Down’s syndrome in 1966. Inge wanted to keep the baby, but at Miller’s insistence he was put away in an institution near their home, which, according to one former employee, “was not a place you would want your dog to live.” Inge visited Daniel weekly; Miller never saw him – not once. He refused to talk about Daniel, and in his autobiography, Timebends, which came out in 1987 (by which time Daniel had moved into a group home), Miller dropped the boy entirely down the memory hole. Still later, apparently under pressure from his son-in-law, actor Daniel Day-Lewis, Miller agreed to meet his son, who by then was doing very well and living on his own. But when Inge died, Miller told the Times obituarist that they had only one child together, their daughter, Rebecca. This from a man whose most admired play, Death of a Salesman, concludes with a famous speech in which a character, speaking at the grave of Willy Loman, passionately insists that “attention must be paid” to the life of even such an apparently insignificant person as this just-deceased salesman.

Such, then, was the moral hypocrisy of Arthur Miller – whose private morality could not have been more thoroughly inconsistent with his glorious public image as a world-class bulwark of social conscience.

Hollywood’s “resident Communist”

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Ed Asner (top middle), with other stars of The Mary Tyler Moore Show

If you’re an American of a certain age, you certainly know who Ed Asner is, and you’re probably very fond of him. And you should be: he’s a terribly likeable guy and a terrific actor. For seven years back in the 1970s, he played the gruff-but-lovable boss Lou Grant on the hit CBS comedy The Mary Tyler Moore Show. There followed several more years in his own spinoff series, Lou Grant. He’s since starred in innumerable TV movies and made guest appearances on a number of sitcoms. Now pushing ninety (he turns 87 tomorrow), Asner continues to keep busy as an actor.

During all these years, however, he’s also found time to involve himself in politics. From 1981 to 1985, he served as president of the Screen Actors Guild. In addition, he’s been active in a great many left-wing groups, campaigns, and causes, the list of which is at least as long as his list of acting credits on IMdB.com. So important a player has he been in far-left activism that his name figures in a 2000-word history of the American left at the website of the Democratic Socialists of America – a group he’s belonged to for years.

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On his own series, Lou Grant

Just a few items from that list. In the 1980s he joined groups that provided aid and comfort to Communist guerrilas in Central America. In 1984 he sponsored the annual banquet of the Labor Research Association, a Communist Party front organization that compiled statistics for use by unions and activists. In 2002 he signed a statement formulated by a leader of the Revolutionary Communist Party that accused George W. Bush of repression and imperialism.

danielFrom time to time, Asner has managed to combine acting with activism. While playing Karl Marx in a 2010 Los Angeles stage production, he explained to a reporter that he’d been cast in the part because “I’m always thought of in Hollywood and surrounding environs as the resident communist.” (Imagine what it takes to be the “resident communist” in Hollywood!)

Years earlier, in 1983, Asner appeared in Sidney Lumet’s film Daniel, based on E. L. Doctorow’s novel about a young man whose parents – based on Julius and Ethel Rosenberg – were executed many years earlier for being Soviet atom spies. The movie, which was scripted by Doctorow, was widely, and properly, panned as a piece of clumsy propaganda: while celebrating the purported nobility and idealism of the radical 1930s activist milieu that shaped the Rosenbergs’ values, it delicately skirting the evil reality of Stalinism and the issue of treason.

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Julius and Ethel Rosenberg

Asner’s belief in the film and its Soviet-friendly message, however, was demonstrated three years ago by his sponsorship of a screening of it that was co-presented by the Communist Party and held at a Party-operated venue in Los Angeles. At the screening, which was dedicated to the memory of the Rosenbergs, Asner gave a speech in which he accused the Rosenbergs’ prosecutors of anti-Semitism, drew a moral equivalency between the Rosenbergs’ trial and Stalin’s show trials, and criticized the “antipathy in this country for people of differing opinions.” As we’ll see tomorrow, however, Asner has shown great understanding for the brutal treatment of “people of different opinions” in another country – namely, Cuba.

Yet again, the Rosenbergs

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Julius and Ethel Rosenberg

Just over a year ago we revisited the case of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were executed as spies in 1953. Back then, their case attracted worldwide attention, both because of the seriousness of the charge – they had played a key role in delivering the secrets of the atom bomb to the Soviet Union, an action that entirely altered the balance of power on planet Earth – and because they were a married couple with two children. More than a few Americans were eager to see them pay the ultimate price for what was, unquestionably, treason; others opposed their execution, either because of a defensible opposition to the death penalty, or to the idea of making orphans of two small boys, or, less justifiably, because they actually viewed the Rosenbergs’ crimes as insignificant, or believed them (despite all the evidence to the contrary) to be innocent, or even, in a great many cases, because they regarded Julius and Ethel as heroes precisely because they were secret agents for Stalin.

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Tony Kushner

The notion that the Rosenbergs were heroes – or, at least, that Ethel, the junior partner in the spy operation, could somehow be regarded as a heroine – was a major animating tenet of the American far left for many decades after the couple’s execution, and endures to this day. (In Angels in America, Tony Kushner turns Ethel into a veritable saint.) The notion has even survived the opening of archives that have provided absolute proof of the Rosenbergs’ activities on behalf of the Kremlin. In 2011, faced with this mounting evidence, one of the Rosenbergs’ sons, Robert Meeropol, broke down and acknowledged his father’s guilt, while reasserting his mother’s innocence; but at the same time he expressed pride in both of them, saying that they had “acted with integrity, courage and in furtherance of righteous ideals.” Needless to say, those ideals, as Rosenberg expert Ronald Radosh pointed out at the time, included “forced collectivization of the land, the murder of hundreds of thousands, [and] the establishment of the Gulag.”

9/28/15 Robert Meeropol (pictured, pink shirt) and his brohter, Michael Meeropol, (pictured, blue shirt) received a proclamation from City Council member Daniel Dromm today. The proclamation recognized the contributions to the labor movement of Ethel Rosenberg, the mother of Robert and Michael. She was convicted of espionage along with her husband Julius in 1953 and was sentenced to death. Today would have marked her 100th birthday. Pictured, left to right: City Council member Mark Levine, City Council member Daniel Dromm, Robert Meeropol, Michael Meeropol and Gail Brewer. On the steps of City Hall, NY, NY . Please credit Gregory P. Mango.
The Meeropol brothers holding copies of the New York City Council proclamation lauding their mother

In October of last year, in yet another example of the continuing far-left compulsion to idealize one or both of the Rosenbergs, the New York City Council issued a proclamation honoring Ethel on what would have been her hundredth birthday, praising her “bravery,” and identifying her as a victim of “anti-Communist hysteria.” As we observed at the time, such actions are the work of people who “still speak of anti-Communism almost as if there was no such thing as Communism itself. In their rhetoric, the terror of life under Stalin dissolves; the Gulag disappears; the Iron Curtain evaporates. And all that is left is Americans’ apparently baseless ‘hysteria.’”

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E. L. Doctorow

Unsurprisingly, the same people on the far left who have persisted in viewing the Rosenbergs as heroes have also depicted the Rosenbergs’ sons as victims. And, yes, they were victims – of their parents’ fanatical devotion to an evil ideology. But the aim on the far left has always been to paint them as victims of a vengeful, heartless America, of “anti-Communist hysteria,” of anti-Semitism, and of other systematic societal ills purportedly afflicting the West. The most notable instance of this effort has been E. L. Doctorow‘s 1971 novel, The Book of Daniel, whose memory-haunted title character is based on the Meeropol boys; the novel’s manifest objective is to blame the young protagonist’s woes not on the boy’s Communist parents but on their capitalist executioners.

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The Meeropol brothers

The spin continues. On October 16, 60 Minutes broadcast a segment featuring both Rosenberg sons. The title, “Finding Refuge,” suited the segment’s angle: it was less an objective report on the facts of the Rosenberg case than yet another effort to whip up public sympathy for Michael and Robert Meeropol. The boys (who are now elderly men) admitted that after decades of insisting on their parents’ innocence, they finally came to accept that their father, at least, was a full-fledged spy. But this doesn’t bother them: as one of the sons said, he finds it “more palatable” to see his parents not as victims but as politically committed people who acted on their beliefs.

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Anderson Cooper

Now, pause for a moment and reflect on that statement. If the son of a couple of long-dead Nazis had spoken in this admiring way about their “commitment,” you can bet that Anderson Cooper would have responded on-camera by sharply challenging the idea that there could be anything “palatable” whatsoever about Nazism. But Cooper let that one pass by without a challenge, reminding us that while (of course) admiring Hitler is universally recognized as utterly appalling, in the corridors of Western media power it’s still considered acceptable to admire people for their unwavering dedication to Stalin.

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Ronald Radosh

During his interview with the Meeropol brothers, Cooper reminded them of what the judge in their parents’ case had said: “The Rosenbergs loved their cause more than their children.” Cooper characterized this as “a very cruel thing to say.” No; it was a plain and simple fact. As Radosh, who was also interviewed on the program, underscored, the U.S. government did not want to have to electrocute the Rosenbergs: it was trying to use the threat of execution to pressure them to provide information about their spy network. But they wouldn’t talk. Their loyalty to their comrades – to their fellow acolytes of Stalinist totalitarianism, and, of course, to Stalin himself – was greater than their loyalty to their children. That, not the judge’s statement, was the cruel element in this story. Plainly – and, perhaps, understandably – the Meeropol brothers are still unable to accept the terrible reality that their parents loved Stalin more than them. They still insist on seeing themselves as the victims of their parents’ executioners; in fact they are the victims of nothing other than the breathtaking power of useful stoogery.

Doublethink: Trumbo and the critics

Back in November, we took a good long look at the new movie Trumbo, which makes a hero and martyr out of blacklisted Stalinist screenwriter Dalton Trumbo. During the last couple of days we’ve been examining reviews of the picture by critics who’ve somehow failed to grasp that, while the Hollywood blacklist may well have been a bad thing, that doesn’t mean that Stalinism was anything other than evil. 

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Bryan Cranston in Trumbo

We’re not done, because (as it turns out) there are plenty more clueless critiques of this film to ponder. Take this bemusing sentence by Steven Rea in the Philadelphia Inquirer: “Set in the years after World War II, when fear of the ‘Red Menace’ – of creeping communism – spread across America, Trumbo details how fear and suspicion wormed their way into the movie biz, with actors and filmmakers branded as Stalinist sympathizers.”

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A protest to free the Hollywood Ten, with Trumbo third from left

But of course it wasn’t just “fear and suspicion” that “wormed their way into the movie biz”; Communism itself wormed its way into the film capital, as part of a highly calculated plan hatched within the walls of the Kremlin itself. And saying that Trumbo and his cohorts were “branded as Stalinist sympathizers” is like saying that Harry Truman was branded as a Democrat. Or a male. Or a Missourian. These guys were Stalinist sympathizers. They were Stalinist tools, Stalinist operatives – conscious and willing enemy soldiers in the war of ideas between the free world and the Soviet bloc. They were, quite simply, Stalinists  – full stop. Rea writes as if all this was invented by paranoid right-wingers, as if the “Red Menace” and “creeping communism” were nothing but feverish fantasies, as if Americans’ “fear and suspicion” of Communism were as unfounded as a fear of ghosts or vampires or werewolves.

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Trumbo wrote in the bathtub

One of the signal attributes of the totalitarian society depicted in George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984 was something he called “Doublethink” – the “power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.” That’s what going on in many of these reviews: even while the critic accepts the fact that Dalton Trumbo was a Communist (how could he not?), he ridicules the “Communist witch hunt” as a paranoid, hysterical effort to unearth enemies of freedom where none at all existed.

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Cranston as Trumbo, writing in the tub

Then there’s Salon‘s Andrew O’Hehir, who knows very well what Stalinism was (and is), and who doesn’t try to disguise his fondness for it. “I cannot pretend to any objectivity when it comes to this subject,” he admits. “My mother and her first husband (who many years later was also her third husband) were both members of the Communist Party. My stepdad knew Dalton Trumbo, and worked on the defense committees for both the Hollywood 10 (a group of movie people, including Trumbo, who went to federal prison for refusing to answer questions before Congress) and for Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, American Communists who were executed as Soviet spies.”

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The Rosenbergs

These are, it must be said, rather curious formulations: of course, the Hollywood Ten weren’t just “a group of movie people” but a group of dedicated members of the Communist Party, all of whom were dedicated to the overthrow of democracy in the United States; and the Rosenbergs weren’t just “executed as Soviet spies,” they were Soviet spies, who passed the atom-bomb secrets on to the Kremlin. (Ethel Rosenberg even lied to her two sons, assuring them in a goodbye letter that she and their father were innocent – a claim proven false many years later by declassified KGB documents.)

Yes, there have been a couple of intelligent, well-informed reviews of Trumbo. We’ll get to them tomorrow.  

 

 

On Holiday

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Billie Holiday

In a recent issue of Commentary, music critic Terry Teachout recounts in brief the story of the great jazz singer Billie Holiday. Jazz aficionados know some of the basics: she grew up poor, became a prostitute at a very young age, pulled herself out of poverty to become a star – but destroyed herself with drugs, alcohol, and a series of compulsively self-destructive relationships, being “irresistibly drawn,” as Teachout puts it, “to flashy, violent men who, like the pimps she had known in her childhood, lived off her earnings.”

Yet through it all she remained a gifted musical artist, able (to quote Teachout again) to “make even the most trivial Tin Pan Alley ditties seem meaningful” and to bring first-class songs “to vivid life without falling victim to the temptation to over-dramatize them.” Teachout cites Holiday’s prewar recordings of such tunes as “I Wished on the Moon” and “What a Little Moonlight Can Do” as archetypal of her work at its best. Other examples: “Easy Living” and “I’m Gonna Lock My Heart (and Throw away the Key).”

But in 1939, Holiday’s career began to take a major turn – one that, as Teachout tells it, had a surprising political element. During a long-term association with a New York club called Café Society, Holiday “changed her style deliberately and dramatically,” introducing new songs into her repertoire. Among them was “Strange Fruit,” which Teachout describes as “a minor-key setting of a poem about a lynching” that is performed “at a paralytically slow tempo” and “full of melodramatic couplets whose sincerity cannot disguise their staginess.” In any event, it became a hit (and a classic) – and pushed her over the line from successful band singer to full-fledged singing star.

Holiday’s recording of “Strange Fruit” is powerful – as is virtually everything else she recorded. A social statement for which the word “impassioned” is far too weak, the song serves up a ghoulish image of a lynched corpse and bitterly condemns what the lyric refers to, with acid sarcasm, as “the gallant South.” It’s interesting and instructive to learn from Teachout that the lyrics were by Abel Meeropol, a fervent Communist who (small world) adopted the sons of the Ethel and Julius Rosenberg after the spies’ 1953 execution. 

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Abel Meeropol

Needless to say, lynching was every bit as abominable a practice as “Strange Fruit” suggests. But for Stalinists like Meeropol, writing songs about such subjects for American consumption was a consummately cynical exercise; such productions were, quite simply, Cold War weapons, the kind that America was not in a position to counter with similar weapons of its own, given the hermetic nature of Soviet culture. And what effective weapons songs like Meeropol’s were – promoting the diabolical ideology of Stalinism by pummeling the consumers of American popular culture with reminders of the very worst aspects of American history and thus rendering them more vulnerable to the idea that the enemy’s way just might be better.

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Terry Teachout

Holiday, however addled by drugs and booze and beatings, wasn’t unaware of this aspect of her work. She was a mess, but she wasn’t stupid. “Strange Fruit” changed her style. As the music critic John Hammond has observed, her later work remained “marvelously musical” but also became “mannered” and “self-conscious.” He called Meeropol’s song “the beginning of the end” for Holiday as an artist, because it made her “the darling of the left-wing intellectuals,” which in turn caused her to start “taking herself very seriously and thinking of herself as very important.”

Teachout puts it this way: at Café Society, Holiday “reinvented herself as a politically conscious torch singer” and thus became “a magnet for leftists, many of them of the hardest possible kind.” These were people who were “more interested in her utility as a political symbol than in her artistry.”

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Robert Meeropol

Billie Holiday, political symbol? You bet. Just poke around online. The World Socialist Web Site devotes a page to the story of “Strange Fruit.” Earlier this year, in People’s World (which describes itself as “the direct descendant of the Daily Worker”), Robert Meeropol, the Rosenbergs’ younger son, sought out parallels between Holiday and his mother, the traitor, paying tribute to both of them and concluding as follows: “In 2015, the centennial year of both of their births, we remember Billie Holiday for singing about lynching, and we remember Ethel Rosenberg for being legally lynched.”

The artistic results of Billie Holiday’s conversion from purely apolitical songstress to tool of left-wing propagandists were not pretty. “From 1939 on,” Teachout writes, “she resorted with fast-growing frequency to a lugubrious self-dramatization and exaggeration”; while “still capable of singing with moving expressivity,” she exchanged “unselfconscious simplicity” for “the inflated pseudo-profundity of ‘Strange Fruit.’” Was she a useful stooge? Hard to say. But she was surrounded by them, used by them, influenced by them, and paraded by them as a victim of a society that, in point of fact, was, for all its egregious faults, incomparably superior to the murderous totalitarian dictatorship for which they labored incessantly and lied without shame. 

Celebrating treason in the Big Apple

9/28/15 Robert Meeropol (pictured, pink shirt) and his brohter, Michael Meeropol, (pictured, blue shirt) received a proclamation from City Council member Daniel Dromm today. The proclamation recognized the contributions to the labor movement of Ethel Rosenberg, the mother of Robert and Michael. She was convicted of espionage along with her husband Julius in 1953 and was sentenced to death. Today would have marked her 100th birthday. Pictured, left to right: City Council member Mark Levine, City Council member Daniel Dromm, Robert Meeropol, Michael Meeropol and Gail Brewer. On the steps of City Hall, NY, NY . Please credit Gregory P. Mango.
Rosenberg sons Robert and Michael Meeropol, hold the proclamations, flanked by Daniel Dromm and Gale Brewer, outside City Hall

It’s only been a few days since we finished up our three-parter on the Rosenbergs, but we’ve got to return to them today because New York City’s City Council has done something truly remarkable. On Monday, September 29, which would have been Ethel Rosenberg’s 100th birthday, the City Council issued an official proclamation honoring her “life and memory,” praising her “bravery,” and describing her as having been “wrongfully” executed. The man behind this initiative was Daniel Dromm, a Democrat who represents the neighborhoods of Corona, East Elmhurst, Elmhurst, Jackson Heights, Rego Park, and Woodside in Queens. At the same time, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, also a Democrat, issued a separate proclamation, declaring September 29 the “Ethel Rosenberg Day of Justice in the Borough of Manhattan.”

The putative reason for this official tribute to Ethel Rosenberg is that she was a pro-union activist who took part in a 1935 strike. But the real reason, which neither Dromm and Brewer sought to disguise in their remarks at a public ceremony outside City Hall, was to portray both Rosenbergs, in time-honored fashion, as innocent victims of American anti-communist hysteria.

When the Rosenbergs were executed, said Dromm, “it was a time of Jew-baiting, it was a time of McCarthyism, a time of anti-Communist hysteria.” These are familiar words. For certain people on the left, even all these decades later, it’s McCarthyism, not Stalinism, that was the real horror of the early postwar years. They still speak of anti-Communism almost as if there was no such thing as Communism itself. In their rhetoric, the terror of life under Stalin dissolves; the Gulag disappears; the Iron Curtain evaporates. And all that is left is Americans’ apparently baseless “hysteria.”

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Ethel Rosenberg

Then there’s Dromm’s reference to “Jew-baiting,” which is, of course, a total diversion. The Rosenbergs weren’t targeted because they were Jews; they were arrested, prosecuted, and executed because they were consciously betraying their country, and threatening its security, on behalf of a totalitarian enemy.

Fortunately, some savvy observers called Dromm and Brewer out on their reprehensible actions. “In these days of progressive ascendancy in New York,” wrote Seth Barron the other day in City Journal, “the Left is in charge, and thus responsible for the humdrum management of trash pickup and school curricula. But that stuff is boring when you’ve been raised on the mythos of class struggle and the glory of violent martyrdom. Today’s leftist leaders can’t help but be wistful for a time when their side was losing and their fight was noble. They cherish the ideals of their revolutionary forebears because it makes them feel like warriors for the oppressed.”

9/28/15 Robert Meeropol and his brohter, Michael Meeropol, received a proclamation (pictured) from City Council member Daniel Dromm today. The proclamation recognized the contributions to the labor movement of Ethel Rosenberg, the mother of Robert and Michael. She was convicted of espionage along with her husband Julius in 1953 and was sentenced to death. Today would have marked her 100th birthday. On the steps of City Hall, NY, NY . Please credit Gregory P. Mango.

The editors of the New York Post were disgusted, too.  The City Council, they charged, had “yet again proved itself one of New York’s biggest political embarrassments.” The City Hall ceremony, they aptly put it, was “the latest installment in the left’s decades-long drive to pretend Ethel and her husband Julius didn’t spy for Moscow.”

But Dromm and Brewer weren’t alone in celebrating the Rosenbergs – and condemning their executioners. At Raw Story, Katie Halper, a contributor to such outlets as The Nation, MSNBC, Jezebel, and Russia Today, rhapsodized over Julius and Ethel and confessed that Ethel’s farewell letter to her sons had made her “cry on live radio.” This is the famous letter in which Ethel lied to her kids, insisting that she and their father were innocent and perversely representing their devotion to Stalin as a commitment to “freedom.” The City Hall ceremony was attended by members of the Rosenberg family, including the traitors’ granddaughter Rachel and her seven-year-old daughter. “The execution left two children orphaned,” we were solemnly reminded at the ceremony. But it wasn’t the fault of America that those two boys grew up without parents; Julius and Ethel made the conscious choice to put their allegiance to a monstrous, bloodthirsty tyrant above their duty to their children.

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.

Not traitors, but “idealists”: Julius and Ethel Rosenberg

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Ethel and Julius Rosenberg

We’ve been looking at the story of Soviet atom spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg – and at the decades of posthumous apologetics and admiration in which their memory was swathed by the American left.

After the fall of the Iron Curtain, as we’ve seen, documents were released proving beyond all doubt that – their passionate defenders to the contrary – the Rosenbergs were, indeed, spies for Stalin. Both of them. Dedicated, ruthless, rabid. More devoted to the most bloodthirsty murderer in history than to their two young sons.

The mass media, to a remarkable degree, ignored this evidence.

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Josef Stalin

But not everybody did. In the 2009 book Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America, which drew heavily on them, John Earl Haynes, Harvey Klehr, and Alexander Vasseliev established beyond question that, in the words of Ron Radosh, author of The Rosenberg Files and an expert on all things Rosenberg, “the Rosenbergs were indeed atomic spies; that the military data their network stole seriously compromised America’s security, that Ethel Rosenberg was involved with her husband from the start and worked to recruit others to the network; that Julius recruited a previously unknown atomic spy, Russell McNutt, and that their primary loyalty was to the Soviet Union and not to their own country.” In the couple of years that followed, more and more material was made public, and more and more books were published, that documented in greater and greater detail the Rosenbergs’ actions on behalf of the Kremlin.

How did the Rosenbergs’ sons, Robert and Michael Meeropol, react to this tsunami of revelation? In a 2011 interview with the New York Times, Robert finally admitted his father’s guilt – kind of. Meanwhile, he reasserted his mother’s innocence. “Strangely,” wrote Radosh, “after having said that his father was guilty, Robert Meeropol makes a statement that is not only a backtracking to his own admission, but is flatly wrong.” Robert Meeropol’s statement read as follows:

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Ron Radosh

Ethel was not a spy and Julius was ignorant of the atomic bomb project. They were innocent of stealing the secret of the atomic bomb and they were fighting for their lives. It would have been next to impossible for them to explain to their children and supporters the subtle distinction between not being guilty of stealing atomic secrets and blanket innocence. Given that, I can understand the course of action they took from a political standpoint.

As Radosh put it, this desperate effort to exculpate the Rosenbergs, and to find some way of making their last-minute declaration to their children of their total innocence seem anything other than an outright lie, “makes no sense whatsoever….the secrets they stole were many, they helped serve the Soviet military machine, and they were classified and not meant to be given to any power, especially to the Soviets. Hence Meeropol’s so-called distinction is a distinction without a difference.”

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A Cuban stamp marking the 25th anniversary of the “murder” of the Rosenbergs

Meeropol claimed in his statement that he remained proud of his parents, maintaining that they had “acted with integrity, courage and in furtherance of righteous ideals, and passed their passion for social justice on to me and my brother.” Radosh’s response: “Their would-be integrity and courage consisted of lying about what they were doing, sacrificing their own children for Stalin’s cause, [and] betraying their own country” in the name of such ideals as “forced collectivization of the land, the murder of hundreds of thousands, the establishment of the Gulag, [and] the path to aggressive war in the new post-war period.”

Bingo. And yet the institutionalized far left continued to line up behind the Meeropols, agreeing that Julius was guilty and Ethel innocent and joining in Robert Meeropol’s insistence that, guilt or innocence aside, his parents deserved respect for their “ideals.”

More tomorrow.

Heroes, martyrs, saints: reinventing the Rosenbergs

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Ethel and Julius Rosenberg

Although it’s been over sixty years since the Stalinist atom spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed for treason at Sing Sing, a federal prison in New York, they continue to be a cause célèbre for many persons who weren’t even born until long after their deaths. The history of the widespread and perverse loyalty to the Rosenbergs’ memory is very much worth pondering, because it reveals a great deal about the psychopathology of the very many useful stooges for whom the betrayal of a free society in the name of mass-murdering totalitarianism is not only defensible but heroic.

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Ron Radosh

Over the years, some of their champions have argued that the Rosenbergs were totally innocent; others, that he was guilty as charged but she was innocent; still others, that they were both guilty, but it wasn’t a big deal, either because the state secrets they passed to the Kremlin weren’t all that important or because their actions were understandable, and thus forgivable, or even downright praiseworthy – the U.S., in the view of these apologists, being an oppressive nation unworthy of the Rosenbergs’ loyalty and the USSR under Stalin a shining symbol of socialist hope. As Ron Radosh, author of The Rosenberg File (1983), put it in 2011, the case was for a long time “a linchpin of the American Left’s argument that the United States government was not only evil during the Cold War years, but was ready to kill regular American citizens because they were against the Truman administration’s anti-Soviet policies.”

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Tony Kushner

Indeed, for many on the left, the Rosenbergs are nothing less than heroes. The makers of a video entitled “Martyrs for Peace” said the following about them: “Both tried to make the world a better place for everyone. Both were courageous.” The socialist playwright Tony Kushner made the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg a character in Angels in America, his much-lauded, award-winning piece of dramatic agitprop. Kushner didn’t just treat Ethel sympathetically; he turned her into a saint, serving up what one sympathetic writer has described as “a powerful portrayal of [her] strength and humanity.”

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Ethel Sings: a promotional photo

It goes on. As recently as last year, New York theatergoers could buy tickets to a play called Ethel Sings: The Unsung Song of Ethel Rosenberg, in which author Joan Beber represented Ethel as a tragic heroine forced to choose between loyalty to her children (i.e., testify and live) and loyalty to her husband (stay silent and die). In the theater program, the play’s director described the Rosenbergs as “liberals, Jews, labor activists, and communist sympathizers in an era of virulent anti-Communism and anti-Semitism.” (For such people, it’s always anti-Communism, not Communism itself, that’s “virulent.”)

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Robert Meeropol

Among the most dedicated apologists for the Rosenbergs have been their sons, Michael and Robert. For a long time they fiercely insisted on the innocence of their parents – who, in a letter written to the boys (then aged six and ten) just before the executions, begged them: “Always remember that we were innocent.” After the Rosenbergs’ death, Michael and Robert were adopted by a couple named Meeropol and took their surname; when the boys grew up and became political commentators and professors (Michael is a retired economics prof at Western New England College; Robert has taught anthropology at the same institution), they both made a busy side career out of defending their parents, relentlessly smearing the Rosenbergs’ critics, accusing those critics of proffering false information, and charging the FBI with fabricating evidence.

1990 PHOTO OF MICHAEL MEEROPOL, SON OF JULIUS AND ETHEL ROSENBERG AT THE ROSENBERG FUND FOR CHILDREN IN SPRINGFIELD.
Michael Meeropol

Together, the Meeropols wrote a 1975 book about their parents called We Are Your Sons; in the novel The Book of Daniel (1971), E. L. Doctorow presented a sympathetic account of a fictional couple based on the Rosenbergs, whose life is viewed retrospectively through the eyes of their son. (It’s surely no coincidence that in 2011, Michael, who now teaches at the City University of New York, recommended Kushner for an honorary CUNY degree.) Once, in an article, Radosh addressed one of the sons directly: “For your own sake, I hope you are mentally prepared for the inevitable day when the KGB’s own archives reveal that your parents were guilty. Get ready, because it’s going to be soon.”

Well, that day finally came. The relevant KGB records were declassified, and secret Soviet messages that had been intercepted and decrypted by U.S. intelligence were also made public. And they proved what Radosh knew they would. Many major news media, some of which had repeatedly and ardently reasserted the Rosenbergs’ innocence over the decades, did their best to ignore these revelations. The New York Times didn’t cover the story. The Nation, which over the decades had vilified and demonized witnesses who were now shown to have been telling the truth all along, deep-sixed the disclosures – and of course didn’t apologize to any of the people it had smeared.

But not everybody ignored the newly released documents. We’ll get around to that next time.