Heroes, martyrs, saints: reinventing the Rosenbergs

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.

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.”

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.”

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.”)

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.

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.

The shameless stoogery of E.L. Doctorow

E.L. Doctorow

E.L. Doctorow died on July 21. He was the author of several novels, including the bestseller Ragtime. He was also an radical leftist who for decades provided financial support to the far-left weekly The Nation and contributed innumerable articles to it.

The important thing to know about Doctorow’s fiction is that he wasn’t the kind of novelist – which is to say, the greatest kind – who is motivated, above all, by a burning desire to capture the truths of the human heart and of human relationships. The kind of novelist, that is, for whom political convictions are secondary – are, as it were, windows into a character’s soul. No: for Doctorow the whole thing worked the other way around. He created characters to make political points. For him, the novel was not a mirror held up to the world but a vehicle for propaganda.

To put it bluntly, Doctorow was a useful stooge for Communism. In some novels this was more explicit than in others. It’s a measure of his own skill as a writer that this fact eluded so many critics and readers.

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg

What Doctorow did in one novel after another was to take historical figures and twist the truths of their lives in such a way as to suit his ideology. In none of his novels was his ideological agenda more obvious than in The Book of Daniel (1971). The book was a shameless effort to win sympathy for Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, two members of the American Communist Party who were longtime Soviet spies in the U.S. and who helped pass the secrets of the atomic bomb on to the Kremlin, thus changing the world in a way that few if any other people have ever done. Thanks in large part to them, the U.S. lost the nuclear monopoly it had enjoyed for a few short years after World War II.

Note well: America could have used that postwar monopoly to bomb the Soviet Union into the Stone Age. It didn’t. But after the Rosenbergs, everything changed. The USSR became a superpower – presumably on a par with the U.S. – solely by virtue of its possession of a weapon whose secret had been handed to them by a gang of spies including this couple from New York.

Josef Stalin

The Rosenbergs were slavish acolytes of Stalin – mindless devotees of a murderous totalitarian regime. If they’d had their way, American freedom would’ve been crushed and replaced by show trials, mass executions, the Gulag. Yet for a generation of American on the extreme left, the Rosenbergs were heroes. Doctorow was one of those Americans. In The Book of Daniel, he plainly wanted Middle America to see them as heroes, too.

But how to do that? How to turn two real-life traitors into heroes? Doctorow happened upon a brilliant solution. The real-life Rosenbergs had two sons who were both small boys when their parents were executed for treason in 1953. Doctorow’s idea was to blend those two real-life children into one fictitious son and to make him the hero of the novel, and to present his parents in flashback – not objectively, as traitors, but through the eyes of the boy, to whom they were, of course, just his beloved Mommy and Daddy.

bookofdanielIt was a stroke of genius. Who could be a more sympathetic protagonist, after all, than an innocent boy who had lost both his parents, on the same day, in an execution that made all the papers? How better to humanize his parents than to show them as loving parents, not as Stalin-loving traitors? But Doctorow does even more than that. Not only doesn’t he depict the Rosenbergs as traitors; he represents them as victims – as objects of persecution. Persecution, that is, by the U.S. government, which Doctorow invites us to view as supremely evil and oppressive for having taken the lives of this man and woman who were devoted to each other and their family. Meanwhile the fact that the Rosenbergs (who in the novel are called the Isaacsons) were servants of one of the world’s great mass-murdering dictators is dropped down the memory hole.

Anyway, that’s E.L. Doctorow’s legacy. The radical left has always been about prioritizing ideology over facts. What Doctorow did was turn the ideological twisting of reality into a literary art.