January 14, 2006


You Want to Understand Fanatics? Understand Julius Rosenberg and His Ilk (Steven Usdin, 1/13/06, History News Network)

Although their goals and methods cannot simply be equated, there are commonalities between Americans who spied for Stalin in the 1930s and 1940s and those who dedicate their lives today to realizing the nightmares preached by radical imams. Communist spies hid behind a façade of legitimate political expression; the recruiters and organizers of terror are co-opting religious institutions.

Analyzing the experience and motivations of Americans who spied for the USSR during the 1940s may help explain the actions of young men like the London bombers who have rejected the values of the country they grew up in and dedicated themselves to Jihad against the West. The history of Julius Rosenberg’s espionage ring is especially instructive because several of its members and their comrades have described why they developed a religious faith in communism.

When he was asked in the 1990s why he had become a communist six decades earlier, Joel Barr, one of the most productive of the Rosenberg spies – and, after defecting in 1950, a prominent engineer in Soviet military industry -- described his conversion in personal terms.

The Barr family was poor before Black Friday; it was destitute after the crash. Joel remembered returning home as a teenager in the early 1930s to see his family’s belongings on the sidewalk, guarded by his sobbing mother. He witnessed the next eviction, “a tremendously harrowing scene, when the marshal came and put the furniture out on the street.” The family ended up “with no toilet in the apartment, no hot water, [and] only a coal stove for heat,” Barr recalled. His unemployed father was ashamed that he had to rely on charity to put food on the table.

Barr’s family wasn’t unique. Every day on the way to school, Joel passed men who had lost decent jobs and were reduced to selling apples on street corners and standing in soup lines.

For the poor anywhere in America in the 1920s and 1930s, it was difficult to believe that capitalism was the path to a prosperous future. It was particularly easy for the children of East European immigrants, raised like Barr and Rosenberg in the tenements and sweat shops of New York City, to put their faith in communism, the force that appeared to be transforming Russia, the most backward region in Europe, into a progressive, egalitarian nation.

Barr and many others who grew up in New York during the Depression used the same expression when asked how they first learned about communism. “It was in the air,” they said. The Daily Worker was sold on street corners and, with other leftist literature, slipped under apartment doors.

Soviet propaganda films and articles depicting a fantastic world in which workers ascended from the coal mines, washed up and attended operas in the evenings had a huge impact on boys like Barr. From his vantage point, communism wasn’t a fringe movement. Rather, it was a vehicle that would carry him from his mother’s world of superstitious religion, with America viewed through a haze from the bottom of society, into a dynamic future.

The fantasy version of Soviet life seemed as plausible to him as the Daily Worker’s assertions that the U.S. was run by a gang of greedy plutocrats intent on exploiting the workers.

I must have missed the memo--has the Left stopped believing that last bit?

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 14, 2006 4:45 PM

joel and his family should have been given tickets to the ukraine. letting leftists stay in the country is going to result in the jim henson phenomenna, writ large.

Posted by: toe at January 14, 2006 5:25 PM

No, they haven't. Because they, like the Barrs and the Rosenbergs before them, are revulsed by various aspects of capitalism. Especially by the winners-and-losers dynamic that lies at the heart of markets. A heavy majority of American blacks, and perhaps half of American women, share that revulsion. Otherwise, the Left hasn't a prayer.

Posted by: ghostcat at January 14, 2006 5:28 PM

That one may have sailed right past me, much like Link Hogthrob in the USS Swinetrek. What is "the jim henson phenomenna"? It ain't easy being green??

Posted by: Ed Driscoll at January 14, 2006 5:31 PM

with no toilet in the apartment, no hot water, [and] only a coal stove for heat"

Of course for almost all of human history, a cold water flat, with a common toilet down the hall, and a stove for heat would be considered luxury.

Shame Stalin's goons never came for this maniac.

Posted by: Jim in Chicago at January 14, 2006 5:36 PM

We'll become a muppet state?

Posted by: ghostcat at January 14, 2006 5:37 PM

I would bet you half of all women are not "revulsed" by capitalism.

Posted by: sharon at January 14, 2006 5:39 PM

Lot's more muppets than we have now at protests.

My mom had an outhouse until she was 12. She was born during the Depression.

Posted by: Sandy P at January 14, 2006 5:40 PM

Heck, Sandy, both my wife and I grew up in VT houses that still had their attached alfresco facilities. Used 'em more than once.

And Sharon, I think you're being rosy-eyed about American women. They, like women everywhere, tend (tend) to favor fairness and security over freedom. "From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs" is a winning campaign slogan for the female vote. And I happen to think that's both understandable and a good thing ... as long as the male counterbalance is also represented.

Posted by: ghostcat at January 14, 2006 5:54 PM

Kermit seems like he'd more naturally belong to the French.

As for Barr and the others, any claims of naievety on their part end after Aug. 22, 1939. Those who continued to follow the dream have no excuse that they didn't know what they were getting into.

Posted by: John at January 14, 2006 5:55 PM


Uber-idealists (AKA zealots, true-believers, nutcases, etc.) do not grasp that every option has an upside and a downside. They are so revulsed by the downside of Option A that they are blind to the downside of Option B. Like those hopelessly in love, they see only the upside.

Posted by: ghostcat at January 14, 2006 6:05 PM

No. Communism, like our present annoyance, wore its evil and hatred on its sleeve. It was nor possible not to have known that it stood for hatred, murder and tyranny. It was totally vicious, being deeply rooted in the vices of hatred, envy, covetousness and lust for revenge.

There has alway been only one way to be a good Communist.

Further, I defy anyone to demonstrate the our country has ever been ruled by "the winners-and-losers dynamic that lies at the heart of markets."

Pray tell, whence came the charity which had enabled Barr's father to put food on the table, or fed the men in the soup lines?

As to who might be praying, I would storm heaven to beseech that no "heavy majority" of any race is so deluded as to embrace Communism, for that delusion could have only one end.

Posted by: Lou Gots at January 14, 2006 8:17 PM

jim henson had a common cold but didn't get it treated, eventually it developed into galloping pneumonia and killed him.

Posted by: toe at January 14, 2006 8:18 PM


Hatred, envy and lust are necessary aspects of the human condition.

Posted by: ghostcat at January 14, 2006 8:42 PM

Ghostcat: Necessary aspects of the fallen human condition, but not to be enshrined as good things, as engines for power, as by Communism. Rather they are to be resisted to the extent we can resist them. so much as we are free of them, we are happier and more prosperous.

Posted by: Lou Gots at January 14, 2006 10:00 PM


If we could access the human software and "disable" hate, envy and lust, we would quickly come to regret our tinkering. While they very much need to be constrained, they are essential to our humanity. And they are, after all, just the inevitable dark sides of love, charity, and affection.

Posted by: ghostcat at January 14, 2006 10:43 PM


Wouldn't you agree that hate stems from fear, and the anger we project to avoid dealing with the fear, rather than being the 'dark' side of love?

Posted by: jim hamlen at January 15, 2006 12:11 AM


I was with you up to the "rather". To me, hate is the same psychological "feature" as love ... with a negative sign instead of positive. David Cohen would say "semantics", no doubt.

Posted by: ghostcat at January 15, 2006 12:36 AM

"has the Left stopped believing that last bit?"

The left thinks that not only were Julius and Ethel not wrong. They were innocent. And that the real enemy is the US government that prosecuted them. Thus the hysteria over NSA communication monitoring.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at January 15, 2006 9:48 AM

Islamism claims to be all God and no humanity. Communism claims to be all humanity and no God. One takes God's name in vain, the other vain humanity to be God. And both leave a trail of death in their wake.

And both are inextricably linked ever since Castro put a bullet in Kennedy's head and then convened a conference to internationalize terrorism. Thus hijackings began. Arab terrorism went through phases of national liberation movements, Pan-Arabism, fascism and Ba'athism and has now more-or-less settled on the original 7th-century Death Cult flavor.

As for the Rosenbergs, we can at least be grateful that Eisenhower wasn't out there on the sidewalks picketing on their behalf in the same way that Bill clinton ran interference for Wen Ho Lee.

Posted by: Noel at January 15, 2006 10:24 AM

where is comrade pearlstein to provide his usual take on things ?

Posted by: toe at January 15, 2006 2:53 PM

Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hatred. Hatred leads to suffering. The Dark Side I sense in you, young Skywa...uh, what were we talking about?

Posted by: Tom at January 17, 2006 7:11 PM
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