Ron Radosh

The Rosenberg Case Once Again — and Its Relevance to Our Own Time

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Mr. and Mrs. Julius Rosenberg, center, shown in this 1951 file photo, commited espionage against the US government by transmitting national secrets to Soviet Russia. (AP Photo/File)

It is mind-boggling that there still is a lack of understanding the truth about the Rosenberg case.  I was reminded of it today thanks to RealClearHistory, which noted that March 6 was the anniversary of the first day of their 1951 trial. For the occasion, the editors chose to reprint an op-ed that I wrote in 2008, some 55 years after the couple’s execution for “conspiracy to commit espionage.” The points I made are not only still relevant, but perhaps more so now.

There is also a great deal of misinformation about what happened during the 1950s, which the Left has managed to institutionalize in our memories as the “age of McCarthyism,” when supposedly many Americans were hounded by Senate and House committees investigating subversion, when scores lost their jobs, and when many dissenters, like the Hollywood Ten, were sent to prison for asserting their constitutional right to express their opinions freely.

Was it really a “reign of terror”? The truth is that a small minority of Americans actually lost their jobs, very few were actually sent to prison, and, most importantly, many who were truly guilty of being Soviet agents were seen as innocent because of the Left’s successful propaganda apparatus.

The term “witch hunt” is the other phrase used most often to describe life in post-war America. Of course, in the colonial era, there were no witches, but in America of the ’50s there were indeed communists. And quite a few of them were recruited from the ranks of the Communist Party U.S.A. to spy on their country and engage in what the party called “special work.”  I wrote about the Rosenberg case and its aftermath in my article:

The end has arrived for the legions of the American left wing that have argued relentlessly for more than half a century that the Rosenbergs were victims, framed by a hostile, fear-mongering U.S. government.  Since the couple’s trial, the left has portrayed them as martyrs for civil liberties, righteous dissenters whose chief crime was to express their constitutionally protected political beliefs. In the end, the left has argued, the two communists were put to death not for spying but for their unpopular opinions, at a time when the Truman and Eisenhower administrations were seeking to stem opposition to their anti-Soviet foreign policy during the Cold War.

Nowhere was this false view expressed more succinctly than by Columbia University historian Eric Foner, who wrote that the Rosenbergs were prosecuted out of a “determined effort to root out dissent,” part of a broader pattern of “shattered careers and suppressed civil liberties.” In other words, it was part of the postwar McCarthyite “witch hunt.” To this date, Professor Foner, long after he must have known that what he wrote was totally false, has still not corrected his specious claim.

In February, a group of historians who have written about communism and Soviet espionage spoke at a forum held in the National Archives, to discuss what we have learned in the past two decades about the extent of the damage done to America’s national security by the Rosenbergs. (You can watch the video on C-SPAN if you did not catch last weekend’s broadcast, or at the website of the National Archives.) I was on the panel along with John Earl Haynes, Harvey Klehr, Steven Usdin, Allen Hornblum and Mark Kramer.

These Cold War cases that seem irrelevant to so many of our contemporaries are important for two major reasons. First, the use of them by the left to paint the recent American past as one of repression and hysteria depends on the belief that people like the Rosenbergs, Alger Hiss, Harry Dexter White and others were all innocent victims hounded because of their private political beliefs. As someone once quipped, just because J. Edgar Hoover or Sen. Joe McCarthy said that someone was a communist did not necessarily make the charge untrue.

Every once in a while, someone comes forward to expose the myth of their innocence for what it is, a myth.  So it was with Morton Sobell, a member of the Rosenberg spy ring, who confessed his guilt to Sam Roberts of the New York Times in 2008.  I concluded my op-ed with these words:

Nevertheless, after Sobell’s confession of guilt, all other conspiracy theories about the Rosenberg case should come to an end. A pillar of the left-wing culture of grievance has been finally shattered. The Rosenbergs were actual and dangerous Soviet spies. It is time the ranks of the left acknowledge that the United States had (and has) real enemies and that finding and prosecuting them is not evidence of repression.

In our own day, threats from Islamist extremists, whether Al Qaeda sympathizers, ISIS recruits, or sleeper cells waiting to carry out another 9/11, are as serious, if not more so, as those that existed in the late 1940s and 1950s. Nevertheless, we have seen leftist groups claiming that the danger to America does not come from radical Islam, but from “Islamophobia.” That term is the equivalent of the left in the 1950s yelling “Red-baiting” when anyone dared to criticize communists or call out secret communists who usually pretended to be simple anti-fascist liberals.

Look no further than the report prepared by Matthew Duss and his colleagues at the Center for American Progress, “Fear Inc.2.0.”  The report argues that to claim the Tsarnaev brothers who bombed the Boston Marathon were motivated by their commitment to Islam is “anti-Islam hysteria.” They go on to attack Rep. Peter King (R-NY) for holding congressional hearings on “Muslim radicalization.” The CAP report urges Americans to protest “increased surveillance” of suspected Muslims with terrorist ties, which of course they brand as a right-wing plot that is part of a supposed “Islamophobia network.” What is this network’s goal, according to the report? Nothing less than to “fan anti-Islam sentiment in the United States.” And as one might have guessed, the report notes that “this disturbing campaign of misinformation and demonization bears resemblance to some of history’s darkest chapters.” And you know what one of those “darkest chapters” is to the left — the McCarthy era of the 1950s.

That comparison was explicitly made by the assistant legal director of the self-proclaimed civil liberties organization the Center for Constitutional Rights. She charged that when George W. Bush established military tribunals to try terrorists, it was similar to “notorious episodes in our country’s history: the Red Scare and the Palmer Raids after the First World War….[and] the repressing and chilling measures of the McCarthy era.”

This same group defended the radical lawyer Lynne Stewart, who was counsel for the “blind sheik,” who was serving his prison sentence for terrorism. His prosecution, the group charged, was part of a “strategy designed to weaken the Bill of Rights” and to scare lawyers willing to represent unpopular clients. What Stewart was found guilty of was that while she represented Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman, she “facilitated and concealed communications” between the sheik, which he passed on to his terrorist organization in Egypt, which he told the translator brought in to interpret his statements to Stewart, who does not speak Arabic.

Many will not be surprised to learn that among those who funds the center was the estate of Isabel Johnson Hiss, the second wife of Soviet spy Alger Hiss. So the circle with the past is completed.