Every so often, a cherished myth of the Left’s historical narrative comes apart. That is why keeping the flame alive by repeating the myths gives sustenance to the Left’s chosen causes. I learned this the hard way when I wrote The Rosenberg File with Joyce Milton in 1983.
To the Left, it was imperative that the Rosenbergs — who were found guilty of “conspiracy to commit espionage” and sentenced to death by Judge Irving Kaufman after the trial — be innocent. If they were not, it would mean that they were not martyrs for peace, arrested and tried for their “progressive” and anti-war politics and their opposition to the impending fascism and anti-Soviet hysteria of the Truman administration. Rather, if actually guilty, it would mean that the United States had a right to protect itself against those who were working on behalf of the Soviet Union by seeking to ferret out atomic secrets on behalf of Joseph Stalin’s tyrannical regime.
To acknowledge the truth, in other words, meant that those on the Left would have to question their most cherished beliefs.
When the book came out, it was only thirty years after the Rosenbergs were executed at Sing Sing prison, and many of those who fought on their behalf were still around and active. Thus they engaged in a massive campaign to discredit our findings and to smear us as tools of the FBI and the Reagan administration, which they charged was trying once again to undermine the cause of peace and to seek war with the still existing Soviet Union.
That is the charge that the Nation magazine’s editor-in-chief, Victor Navasky, made in the magazine’s editorial. As for the American Communist Party, its chief, Gus Hall, attacked us for smearing the Rosenbergs, whom he tellingly referred to as “the sacred couple.”
Now, a brave left-wing historian named Timothy Messer-Kruse — despite his own self-proclaimed “social-democratic” politics — has walked into the minefield.
In the latest issue of National Review, writer John J. Miller has penned an article — “What Happened at Haymarket?” — that takes up one of the Left’s most longstanding historical myths: the one surrounding events that took place the night of May 4, 1886, at Haymarket Square in Chicago. Formerly, Messer-Kruse would tell his students:
A gathering of anarchists near Haymarket Square turned into a fatal bombing and riot. Although police never arrested the bomb-thrower, they went on to tyrannize radical groups throughout the city, in a crackdown that is often called America’s first Red Scare. Eight men were convicted of aiding and abetting murder. Four died at the end of a hangman’s noose. Today, history books portray them as the innocent victims of a sham trial: They are labor-movement martyrs who sought modest reforms in the face of ruthless robber-baron capitalism.
To the present day, those events have been a staple in the portrayal of the United States as a nation unjust to those it oppressed, which included workingmen who sought only to gain protection for their rights against rapacious capitalists.
Miller explains that a group of peaceful protesters had gathered to demand an eight-hour workday. Many were anarchists, but Messer-Kruse formerly believed:
They were mainly a peace-loving bunch who simply wanted to improve their wretched conditions. As police arrived to bust up the crowd, someone tossed a bomb. No one knows who did it — perhaps an anarchist agitator.
Howard Zinn wrote in his best-selling People’s History of the United States that it likely was “an agent of the police, an agent provocateur.” Police fired their guns, and seven of their group and some protesters lay dead. Authorities blamed the deaths on the radicals, who were rounded up and convicted without evidence; four were hung, one committed suicide, and three were later pardoned. The Left’s narrative is explained by Miller:
Ever since, Haymarket has occupied a central place in progressive lore. The international labor movement honors May Day as its holiday in part because of its proximity on the calendar to Haymarket’s anniversary. In the United States, Haymarket ranks alongside the cases of Sacco and Vanzetti, Alger Hiss, and the Rosenbergs as a fable of anti-radical persecution. Well into the 20th Century, its notoriety provoked violent rage. In 1969, Bill Ayers and an accomplice from the Weather Underground engaged in their own Haymarket terror, bombing a statue that honored the fallen policemen of 1886. “This is too good — it’s us against the pigs, a medieval contest of good and evil,” wrote Ayers of the affair in his memoir, Fugitive Days.
Historian Messer-Kruse believed the standard left-progressive mythology. But a student’s question about what happened during the trial led him to look anew at the events from that sad day in 1886. The result was his brave exploration of what had been until now the standard take on Haymarket. Just as most of the college textbooks portrayed the Rosenbergs as innocent, the Left’s narrative was repeated verbatim, and as Miller writes, “entered mainstream education.” The left-wing labor historian James Green explained in a 2006 account:
The Haymarket case challenged, like no other episode in the nineteenth century, the image of the United States as a classless society with liberty and justice for all.
Imagine Messer-Kruse’s shock when his own careful scholarly examination of Haymarket revealed that most of what the Left taught about the event was based on both shoddy scholarship and ideological wish-fulfillment.