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.
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.”
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.”
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.”)
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.
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.