The Left and the Rosenberg Case: Historian Staughton Lynd Inadvertently Reveals Their Real Concern
First, a note about Staughton Lynd for younger readers. In the late 1960’s and early 70’s, Lynd was somewhat of a household name. Life magazine, then the nation’s leading popular newsweekly, had a cover photo of Lynd and the radical activist Dave Dellinger being pelted with fake blood and eggs on its cover; along with Tom Hayden and the Communist Party historian Herbert Aptheker, Lynd took a trip to Vietnam in 1965-66, from which they returned extolling the virtues of Vietnamese Communism and urging U.S. unilateral withdrawal from the war. Lynd at the time was a Professor of History at Yale University. His activism and his trip to Hanoi led the university to not renew his teaching contract, and he was fired. (Were he in a similar position today, he would be immediately offered a Distinguished Professorship at scores of American universities.) Lynd was so popular among the Left, that when Lyndon B. Johnson was President, Students for Democratic Society offered a button, proclaiming “Lynd not Lyndon.”
Eventually Lynd decided to leave history and to become a full-time activist, first as a community organizer and later as a labor lawyer in the union town of Youngstown Ohio, where he practices law today. This does not stop him, at times, from returning to historical inquiry. His own field of expertise was in events of the 18th and 19th Century. But now, he was evidently compelled to write about something of which he knows next to nothing---the favorite topic of return for American leftists, the Rosenberg case.
In the current issue of the decades old Marxist magazine Monthly Review, founded in 1949 by Leo Huberman and Paul M. Sweezy, Lynd has an article titled “Is There Anything More to Say About the Rosenberg Case?” I have read his article, and my comments on it will follow. But I would answer the question he raises in the title with a firm NO, since his own piece adds nothing of substance to understanding the real issues in the case. What Lynd does do, however, is reveal something that is of great importance to understanding the mindset of the Left in America---which is certainly not the intent he had in writing about the case.
So let me now turn to Lynd’s argument. First, Lynd’s bias is revealed immediately in what he cites as sources for his discussion. He is impressed with the book by the late Walter Schneir, Final Verdict:What Really Happened in the Rosenberg Case, which I have reviewed here and here, and which Harvey Klehr and John Earl Haynes discussed here. Lynd believes the new conspiracy theory developed by Schneir in his book, but while he cites the old book by Klehr and Haynes on Venona, he seems not to be aware of their most recent book. In Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America, which appeared in 2009 and came out in a paper edition last year-they present new material about the Rosenberg case. Had Lynd read this book, it would have harmed his own argument in favor of the Schneir’s book. Since it is very easy for him to find out about its publication, one must assume that Lynd is a very sloppy historian.
What Lynd goes on to argue is that first, since Venona, most people understand that the decrypts of Soviet KGB cables “unmistakably showed that Julius Rosenberg was a Soviet agent [and]indeed had been the head of a Soviet spy ring.” But naturally, he objects to the fact that “those who have all along argued that the Rosenbergs were guilty feel triumphant.”
Do I feel triumphant, since Lynd is talking about me and the late Joyce Milton, with whom I wrote The Rosenberg File in 1983, the first book to argue that Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were Soviet spies, and not political martyrs? As most PJM readers probably know, for decades the Left- including the moderate Left- has condemned me for this conclusion. Yes, it is nice to find one’s research and argument vindicated by history, and by new research not available in the 1980’s that confirm my original findings- but what satisfies me is that I was able to contribute something that helped tear apart the Left’s argument that history proved the United States was the single villain in the Cold War years.
What disturbs Lynd however is not the fact that coming out of the American left- particularly the American Communist Party- a ring was composed of a group that betrayed their own nation and stole its classified secrets. What disturbs him is that the government used evidence that came, he says, from those who decided to “snitch.” Lynd digresses from his analysis to write that “the Rosenbergs’ execution was really all about their refusal to snitch.” And as he says, “refusal to snitch is one of the highest values of long-term prisoners.”
The use of this loaded term gives us a good indication of how Lynd thinks. What were the Rosenbergs asked to do by the government? They were asked to identify other members of the spy network Julius had set up. Two of them, Joel Barr and Alfred Sarant, had managed to elude the FBI and fled the country, where they ended up eventually in the Soviet Union, where they used their expertise gained in the United States to modernize the Soviet military and to establish its first computerized systems for the military. (The details are provided in Steve Usdin’s important book, Engineering Communism: How Two Americans Spied for Stalin and Founded the Soviet Silicon Valley.) Others were still at large, and one of them- a top scientist named William Perl, was able to steal major military secrets of jet aircrafts and give them to Rosenberg for transmission to the Soviets.
To Lynd, not telling the truth about these spies is trumped by what he sees as their nobility in not snitching, even though it meant they were willing to orphan their own children in the service of Joseph Stalin’s USSR.
In the next part of his article, he reiterates arguments long since discredited, without informing his gullible left-wing readers where and how this has taken place. Yet, Lynd argues that the Rosenbergs were convicted in a “sham” trial- since although they were guilty- the government was not able to use the Venona decrypts in court, and thus- according to Lynd- they developed a false case. In other words, his argument is that they were guilty, but should have been found innocent by the evidence available in the 1950’s.
Next, he argues that the Rosenbergs conducted only “industrial espionage,” which if so, sounds less problematic and rather inconsequential. This, of course, is false—and Lynd, unless he really is dumb-knows that this is not true. Second, he says they could not be convicted then or now for atomic espionage “beyond a reasonable doubt.” This also is false. And third, he argues that Ethel Rosenberg was only an accessory whose role was not as important as that of her husband. Only the third is partially true, since we now know from Spies that she played a bigger role than anyone previously thought.
Next, we get to the heart of his argument, where he reveals his real agenda. The Rosenbergs, he actually argues, had a higher duty than to their own country, and this he says has “rarely, if ever, been publicly discussed.” So what is this higher duty? Here he lets the cat out of the bag. Lynd writes: “It concerns the Rosenbergs’ obligations as Communists, and as citizens of the world.” (my emphasis.)
The Rosenbergs, he is actually arguing, had to obey their loyalty to Stalin, the Soviet Union and the system he was seeking to expand all over the world, at the height of the Cold War. It was their “obligation,” after all. The reason, he continues to argue, is visible in a question he says few dared to ask: “If an American helped the Soviet Union to obtain the atomic bomb as soon as possible, might that have been justified? (my emphasis.)
Lynd, in other words, not being able to find his own country’s citizens then or now voting to make all military secrets open to the entire world, and since he desires just such a development, believes that anyone so doing was heroic in doing their part to give away top secrets. Lynd, not our elected representatives, believes that any citizen should be able to make the decision to give away top secrets in the name of democracy. And finally, he particularly thinks it justified because in his eyes, the enemy of the world was American imperialism and militarism, and Joseph Stalin and the U.S.S.R. was the only world power standing in America’s way, and hence had to be supported.
We are talking here about one of the world’s greatest tyrannies, whose leader not only killed millions at a whim, but who was developing a foreign policy of aggression, meant to not only cement his hold on the Eastern European nations he already had subjected to the rule of local Stalinist thugs, but was seeking to do so as well in France and Italy, where he was actually close to success. Lynd talks about how silly is “parochial nationalism,” citing Debs, Tom Paine, William Lloyd Garrison and others for support, while using their names to justify support to Stalin’s Soviet Union. Any of these men he cites, including the socialist Debs, would be furious to find their names invoked to justify such a cause.
Lynd ends by speculating about what the Rosenbergs thought about all the conflicts and turmoil occurring in the American CP, during the period they were involved with carrying out Soviet espionage. He wonders where they thought, and actually writes, in a footnote, that they may never have even been formal CP members. Again, he is unaware of the evidence that indicates their membership in the CP for a long time has been established, and is not even contested by anyone at present. (outside of a few fringe figures he cites.) He does not know that even once they severed their formal ties, they continued to pay regular dues to the CP liaison they regularly saw, Bernard Schuster.
We also know that the Rosenbergs were recruited during the Nazi-Soviet Pact, not in 1944, as he writes, and that they continued to carry on their activities until the day of their arrest, when the Cold War was on. They were hard line Stalinists, not CP reformers. So his speculation that perhaps they opposed the dropping of the A-bomb on Hiroshima is nothing but wishful thinking. The CP supported the use of the bomb, as it did the incarceration of Japanese Americans by FDR during the war. As good Communists, who always followed the Party line, they would have done nothing else. They were not feel-good pacifists like Lynd, who confuses his own inclinations with that of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.
Lynd hopes that it was “actual use of the atomic bomb [that] may well have motivated people like Julius and Ethel Rosenberg to do more to ensure that the Soviet Union learned how to make an atomic bomb as soon as possible.” The problem with that argument is that Julius started his network and recruited atomic spies well before the U.S. dropped the A-bomb on Hiroshima. Nevertheless, he ends by wondering whether helping Stalin get the bomb was not only “justifiable,” but possibly “even obligatory?”
So Staughton Lynd speaks in the true voice of the American Left: Its motto then, and now is this: The United States is the enemy, the opponent of all those good people who want peace, freedom and socialism. It alone is the enemy of the people of the world. In the 1940’s and 50’s, its power was checked by the Soviet Union, which internationally, was a force for good since it alone stood in America’s way. Not only is the enemy of my enemy my friend---but America’s enemies are the people’s; i.e., the Left’s, real friends. One helps his true friends, not those who are his oppressors. So Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, in betraying their own nation, were heroes.
Even Fidel Castro, who recently told the press that he acted incorrectly and dangerously at the time of the Cuban missile crisis, is more critical than Lynd. In his article, Lynd says that if Russia did not have the bomb, it is not certain that the world would have been able to “preserve the improbable independence of Communist Cuba.” Is he kidding? Cuba was practically a Western output of the Soviet Union in that period, and never was independent. If anything, without a nuclear umbrella, Castro might not have been able to stay in power, and the Cuban people would have been able to create a free Cuba without being led by corrupt authoritarians of the Right or Stalinist totalitarians of the Left.
Lynd is free to believe that if the Rosenbergs “hastened the development of a Soviet atomic bomb, it may have tended to preserve the peace of the world.” He is free to ignore that it also allowed Stalinist repression to continue unabated far longer than it might have, something that seems not to concern him.
Finally, we have to acknowledge that Lynd has changed the terms of the Left’s debate. They used to argue- for many years- that the Rosenbergs were totally innocent and framed up. Now Lynd argues they may have been guilty, and instead of not admitting that, we should celebrate them for being traitors to their own land. In making such an argument, Staughton Lynd has revealed the real agenda of the far Left in America.