January 27, 2006


Rosenberg Reruns: They were guilty, but the left can't give up their cause (JOSEPH RAGO, January 27, 2006 , Opinion Journal)

You would think, by now, with a half-century of scholarship behind us and a great deal of damning evidence on display, we would not have to be arguing about the guilt or innocence of various iconic figures of the late 1940s and 1950s: Alger Hiss, Harry Dexter White or, perhaps most notoriously, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. But the martyr status of such figures seems irresistible, even today, to a certain kind of sentimental leftist. They still remain symbols of some malevolent American quality--never mind the truth of what they actually did.

Such was the lesson of a forum last week in Manhattan convened to discuss the "artistic influence" of the Rosenbergs. The invitation to the event, sponsored by the Fordham Law School, referred to the Rosenbergs as "the accused." It was a tellingly exculpatory phrase. For the record, both Julius and Ethel were convicted as communist spies and executed for espionage in 1953.

The stars of the evening were the novelist E.L. Doctorow and the playwright Tony Kushner. Mr. Doctorow is the author of "The Book of Daniel" (1971), a novel that centers on a couple loosely patterned after the Rosenbergs; Mr. Kushner wrote the play "Angels in America" (1993), which imagines the specter of Ethel Rosenberg returning to haunt various protagonists. Both works are highly sympathetic to the Rosenbergs' dilemma, if that is the right word. [...]

While the trial of the Rosenbergs was flawed by technical improprieties, their crimes are not uncertain or unresolved. Julius Rosenberg, with Ethel as his accomplice, was the head of a sophisticated spy network that deeply penetrated the American atomic program and relayed top secrets to Stalin's Kremlin. In his memoirs Nikita Khrushchev noted that the Rosenbergs "vastly aided production of our A-bomb." Joyce Milton and Ronald Radosh wrote a damning account of their activities in "The Rosenberg File" (1983). And the Rosenbergs' guilt was corroborated by the 1995 declassification of the Venona documents, thousands of decrypted KGB cables intercepted by the National Security Agency in the 1940s.

The notion that anyone would today deny their fundamental complicity in Soviet subversion is extraordinary, almost comically so. But comedy was not quite the mentality at the Rosenberg event. "Ambiguity is the key word, I think," said Mr. Doctorow, regarding our understanding of the past, though in this instance ambiguous is precisely what it is not.

Mr. Kushner argued the Rosenbergs were "murdered, basically." Mr. Doctorow went further, explaining that he wanted to use their circumstances to tell "a story of the mind of the country." It was a mind, apparently, filled with loathing and paranoia--again, never mind the truth of the charges against the Rosenbergs or other spies of the time. "The principles of the Cold War had reached absurdity," he continued. "We knew that the Russians were no threat, but we wanted to persuade Americans to be afraid" and so impose "a Puritan, punitive civil religion." Pronounced Mr. Kushner: "Our failure to come to terms with a brutal past, our failure to open up the coffins and let the ghosts out, has led to our current, horrendous situation."

A couple of points arise:

(1) The modern Left exists to amuse the rest of us--it is comic relief. If you've never read Robert Warshow's essay on the Rosenbergs' prison letters it's worth buying from the Commentary Archives or just purchasing his book, The Immediate Experience--it's a brutal hoot.

(2) It was at least somewhat possible to understand how intellectuals, artists and such were so beguiled by Communism as to become apologists for Stalinism and traitors like the Rosenbergs. But to still be under the spell is profoundly strange and the way so many on the Left are just repeating their anti-Americanism of the Cold War now that we're fighting Islamicists is in no wise forgivable. Indeed, it is evil.

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 27, 2006 3:59 PM

--"Our failure to come to terms with a brutal past, our failure to open up the coffins and let the ghosts out, has led to our current, horrendous situation."--

He's got that right, communism won't work and he still can't figure out why..............

Posted by: Sandy P at January 27, 2006 4:40 PM

Their propulsion system remains 75% anti-Christian and 25% pro-collective. Russian roots grow deep. Can't tell the players without looking at the pogroms.

Posted by: ghostcat at January 27, 2006 4:50 PM

Anyone who was "still under the spell" of Communism after sometime in the early 1930s was already evil. There comes a point where ignorance just doesn't fly as a plausible excuse.

Posted by: b at January 27, 2006 5:02 PM

And the Republicans are the conservatives. Urban America, to generalize, are still mired in the 1930's. What is it with these people? Chronic self rightiousness? No wonder they're afraid to have their overseas calls monitored. Their subconcious guilt is killing them.

Posted by: Genecis at January 27, 2006 5:06 PM

ghostcat: good one :)

Posted by: toe at January 27, 2006 5:53 PM

Reminds me of the piece that PBS (must've been) ran on another of the atomic spies a year or two ago. The program ended with some very angry and very nutch broad defending the loathesome fellow b/c he was "standing up for his principles" or somesuch. Yech.

Posted by: Jim in Chicago at January 27, 2006 5:56 PM

Jim: I know what you must be talking about--that was Ted Hall's wife. One of the most nauseating things I've ever seen...

Posted by: b at January 27, 2006 6:16 PM

nutch = butch.

Yeah b, that's the one.

Posted by: Jim in Chicago at January 27, 2006 6:23 PM

b: You are very much correct about the evil of anyone who adhered to and gave aid and comfort to Communism after the 1930's.

Let us ponder to evil of someone who waived Mao Tse Tung's little red book in the 60's, or chanted for North Vietnamese victory in the 70's, or wore a Che Guevara sweatshirt in the 90's.

To grasp this depth of depravity, we must go forward to this very instant. How is it that there are those who harbor such hatred for America and its people that they sympathize with our present adversaries?

It is because of the sickness, the malice which they nurse in their innermost hearts against their neighbors, their parents, their ancestors and their posterity.

We need to remember that Communism, like the people we now face across our gunsights, made no secret of its goals or its methods. Revolution, rivers of blood, dictatorship were its ideals.

Posted by: Lou Gots at January 27, 2006 7:45 PM

The ironic thing, is that people like Fuchs, Hall,
the Rosenbergs, and Melita Norwood, through their
actions, brought about the arms race, with accelerated the Cold War, McCarthyism et al. Their
selfless selfdestructiveness known no bounds.

Posted by: narciso at January 27, 2006 11:27 PM

The problem for the modern left is that if the Rosenbergs were really guilty, then they are, too. Even today, with 'new' enemies. So they rage on.

Posted by: jim hamlen at January 28, 2006 12:04 AM

The popularity of Marxism with the artistic crowd reinforces my idea that aesthetics is one of the core motivations of the Left.

Posted by: Robert Duquette at January 29, 2006 1:03 PM

Marxism, like Darwinism, is materialist, not aesthetic.

Posted by: oj at January 29, 2006 1:10 PM

Since when is materialism not an aesthetic?

Posted by: joe shropshire at January 29, 2006 4:26 PM

Aesthetics are immaterial.

You and Robert have stumbled up to the edge of an insight though. artists stopped believing in beauty in the 19th century and made their art a servant of materialist ideologies, that's why a Picasso, a Joyce, and a Stravinsky are so ugly.

Posted by: oj at January 29, 2006 4:30 PM