Joseph Rago: Rosenberg Reruns (The left can't face the truth that they were guilty)





[Mr. Rago is an assistant features editor of The Wall Street Journal's editorial page.]

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.
The forum was generally arcane and self-serious. Messrs. Doctorow and Kushner ventilated many concerns about the relation of culture to society, chief among them the obligation of the artist to accurately represent the past. The pair eventually settled on the definition of historical art as "an aesthetic system of opinions," as the good Doctorow put it.

Fair enough. But why would "the artist"--let alone anyone--still be hung up on the Rosenbergs? To plow through the evidence for the millionth time: 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."...



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Tim Matthewson - 1/28/2006

The Rosenbergs themselves were less important that were the purposes to which the Rosenberg trial was applied. Their trial achieved as the author says an iconic status, mainly in the minds of Joseph McCarthy, Richard Nixon, and hosts of other Republican Grand Inquisitors, including the Democratic McCarthyites such as Harry Truman.
The whole trial was one of America's first great show trials where the guilt or innocence of the defendants was a foregone conclusion and the prosecutors, defense attorneys, and judges trembled in their chairs for fear that they too might fall into the wide net cast by the Grand Inquisitors.
People who are guilty crimes should be prosecuted, but people who are prosecuted should get a fair trial, one that is free from anti-communist and any other types of hysteria that the media can whip up in an effort to sell newspapers. In more recent time, the twenty-four hour news cycle has significantly reduced the efficacy of our criminal justice system and I believe that we will have to confront the harmful impact of the media and its influence on the judicial and political processes.
The point of the author's article should not have been that left-wing critics are wrong, but that McCarthyism was wrong and that any trial conducted in a superheated political environment, such as the Era of Joseph McCarthy, will likely result in the opening of a permanent wound that will fester perpetually, generation after generation, and never be settled.


Tim Matthewson - 1/28/2006

The Rosenbergs themselves were less important that were the purposes to which the Rosenberg trial was applied. Their trial achieved as the author says an iconic status, mainly in the minds of Joseph McCarthy, Richard Nixon, and hosts of other Republican Grand Inquisitors, including the Democratic McCarthyites such as Harry Truman.
The whole trial was one of America's first great show trials where the guilt or innocence of the defendants was a foregone conclusion and the prosecutors, defense attorneys, and judges trembled in their chairs for fear that they too might fall into the wide net cast by the Grand Inquisitors.
People who are guilty crimes should be prosecuted, but people who are prosecuted should get a fair trial, one that is free from anti-communist and any other types of hysteria that the media can whip up in an effort to sell newspapers. In more recent time, the twenty-four hour news cycle has significantly reduced the efficacy of our criminal justice system and I believe that we will have to confront the harmful impact of the media and its influence on the judicial and political processes.
The point of the author's article should not have been that left-wing critics are wrong, but that McCarthyism was wrong and that any trial conducted in a superheated political environment, such as the Era of Joseph McCarthy, will likely result in the opening of a permanent wound that will fester perpetually, generation after generation, and never be settled.

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