Spying for Stalin was bad, right?

July 4th, 2003
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“It was taken for granted among us that [Julius and Ethel Rosenberg] were guilty. We had this kind of double thinking. While they were guilty, of course they were innocent. They were framed. Because anyone … indicted by the capitalists was ipso facto framed.”

— Ronald Radosh quoting John Gates, member of the U.S. Communist Party’s central committee, in The Rosenberg File.

You’d think this verdict, coming from a bona fide red-diaper New York intellectual, would end the argument over this notorious duo, who went defiantly to their execution in 1953. But the campaign to deify the Rosenbergs and other American communists who spied for the Soviet Union, notably Alger Hiss, keeps right on rolling.

The latest exemplar of this mini-genre is An Execution in the Family, by Robert Meeropol. In this just-published “personal memoir,” the Rosenbergs’ younger son (who took the name of his adoptive parents) says he is “proud” of his parents, who “ … acted with integrity, courage, and in furtherance of righteous ideals.”

Twenty years ago, Radosh set out to prove the same thing. Instead, this life-long radical leftist concluded the facts just didn’t support his hope. “Julius Rosenberg … managed … to become the co-ordinator of an extensive espionage operation whose contacts were well placed to pass on information on top secret military projects,” Radosh concluded in The Rosenberg File. Radosh’s findings were later corroborated by post-glasnost Russian sources.

Allen Weinstein made a similar discovery while researching Perjury. Weinstein initially assumed Alger Hiss, the State department official accused by confessed ex-communist Whittaker Chambers of being a key Soviet agent of influence, was innocent. Weinstein showed convincingly that Chambers had been truthful and Hiss was a Stalinist spy. As an aside, Weinstein casually described Rosenberg as “the head of a spy ring.”

Radosh’s and Weinstein’s work was hugely significant. America’s leftists had spent 30 years self-righteously proclaiming the innocence of Hiss, the Rosenbergs and lesser-known American communists. They sought to discredit the accusers through character assassination and ridicule.

They countered Chambers’ damning testimony by drawing attention to his girth, rumpled clothing and bad teeth. Chambers’ enemies largely succeeded. They broke his spirit, and for decades the image lingered of Chambers as weirdo, Hiss as martyr.

But America’s leftists also insisted the facts were on their side. Weinstein and Radosh destroyed this defence.

Since then, the apologists have shifted ground from denying the crimes to downplaying their significance. The Rosenbergs and Hiss may have been guilty, they reluctantly admit, but guilty of what, exactly? Meeropol admits the “possibility” Julius Rosenberg spied for the Soviets — but only to help them “defeat the Nazis.” So the spies were guilty of excessive idealism, perhaps. Or egalitarian zeal. Or the belief — understandable, if perhaps naive — that sharing America’s nuclear secrets would help the Soviet Union feel less threatened. In any case, their so-called “spying” did little damage. It was just information.

The communists’ accusers, meanwhile, are portrayed as narrow-minded persecutors, boors and probably bigots. This has become almost axiomatic in the popular imagination, standard fare in Hollywood flicks and spy thrillers. Novelist Joseph Kanon took this tack in The Prodigal Spy, about the son of an accused American communist spy who flees to Czechoslovakia. In Kanon’s world, the anti-communists are the villains, lacking the humanity of their culturally sophisticated and emotionally sensitive quarry.

In real life, Meeropol has actively sought to discredit the Rosenbergs’ judge, and in his book reserves his harshest words for his uncle, David Greenglass, who co-operated with the prosecution. Similarly, Tony Hiss’ memoir paints a warm, personal picture of his father, while vilifying Chambers. (Interestingly, not a drop from the left’s deep well of sensitivity was reserved for Radosh and Weinstein. The reward for their courageous scholarship was to be treated as apostates).

On a personal (though superficial) level, one can sympathize. What son wouldn’t instinctively defend his parents, however strong the evidence? But did Meeropol learn anything from their misadventure? That, say, spying for Stalin was bad? Far from it: “My parents’ experience taught me that it was dangerous to be at war with the most powerful forces of your society.” So it wasn’t wrong to spy, just inconvenient.

In Meeropol’s mind, as in Kanon’s, being an anti-communist appears worse than working for Stalin. Today Meeropol runs an institute dedicated to helping the wrongfully accused, eloquent testimony to what he thinks of the U.S. judicial system.

It’s important that history doesn’t view the era of America’s communist spies through the apologists’ lens of narcissism and self-pity. The spies may have been well-educated and intelligent, sensitive and esthetic, plus erudite dinner companions. Some of their accusers may have been louts or opportunists. But this wasn’t all about the perpetrators’ personalities. It was about what they did.

The central fact is that the “integrity” of the Rosenbergs, Hiss and the many other American communists who became traitors led them to betray a great, if flawed, democracy. Their “righteous ideals” materially aided history’s worst mass-murderer, who racked up a body count of 20 million, according to the definitive Black Book of Communism. When you think about it, this also says a lot about what kind of people they were.

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