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.

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. 

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.

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.