Jews, Communism, and Espionage

By Alex Joffe
Wednesday, June 29, 2011

In the history of the American Left, Jews have been disproportionately represented—disproportionately, that is, relative to their share of the American population. At the extremes, they have also been active participants in what has sentimentally been called the "romance" of American Communism, including by committing espionage on behalf of the Soviet Union against the United States itself.

The most notorious instance is that of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Their case shaped the political and moral attitudes of millions of Americans alive today, and in modified form its tropes pervade the debate over critical present-day issues as well. A recent conference at George Washington University helped bring into focus the period in which the Rosenbergs perpetrated the crimes that led to their trial and eventual execution, and the enduring implications of their case.

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were model American Communists. Joining the party in their teens, they loyally adhered to the beliefs and dogmas of their surrogate religion and faithfully carried out the directives issued by the totalitarian Stalinist regime in Moscow to its American followers. Julius, who graduated from the City College of New York, joined the Army Signal Corps. In 1942 he was recruited by Soviet intelligence, to which he provided thousands of pages of secret documents on American technical projects. No less importantly, he recruited other spies, mostly Jews, who transmitted similar information. Among them was his wife Ethel's brother, David Greenglass, who worked as a machinist on the American atomic-weapons program known as the Manhattan Project.

The Manhattan Project was riddled with Soviet spies. When one of the most important of them, Klaus Fuchs, was uncovered in 1950, the Rosenberg ring likewise began to unravel. Julius and Ethel were indicted for espionage, tried in 1951 (by a Jewish prosecutor, in front of a Jewish judge, with a New York jury that included no Jews), convicted, and sentenced to death. The execution, carried out in 1953, elicited worldwide outrage. The pair went to their deaths refusing to admit guilt or to implicate others, and celebrated by many as victims of official American malevolence and cold-war "hysteria."

At the conference in Washington, the gray-haired participants included virtually all of today's leading scholars of the case and experts in the history of Soviet espionage, American Communism and anti-Communism, and the American Left: Ronald Radosh, John Earl Haynes, Harvey Klehr, Richard Gid Powers, and many more. They spoke as insiders: the Rosenbergs were referred to by their first names, and full knowledge of their deeds and misdeeds was assumed.

It was the 1983 publication of The Rosenberg File by Ronald Radosh and Joyce Milton that severely dented the then-accepted narrative among leftists and many liberals of the couple's innocence. At the conference, Radosh recounted the vicious campaign against him by Rosenberg loyalists and revisionist historians dedicated to preserving the pair's reputation as blameless martyrs to a great cause. Although a number of such loyalists were invited to the Washington conference, none attended.

But another June event, the "58th Annual Memorial Meeting for Ethel and Julius Rosenberg," made up for the lack. Held at New York University and sponsored by the National Committee to Reopen the Rosenberg Case, that meeting featured, among others, Robert Meeropol, one of Ethel and Julius's two sons. Fifty years ago, such a gathering would have been held in Madison Square Garden. Today, thanks to the declassification of American and Soviet documents, the fact of the Rosenbergs' espionage, he as leader and recruiter, she as facilitator, is no longer in question except by a handful of true believers, and the wind has gone out of efforts to "reopen" the legal case against them.

Which has not impeded efforts to exonerate the couple politically and morally, as Radosh pointed out in Washington. Instead, it has only prompted a switch in emphasis.

Supporters of the Rosenbergs had always admitted their membership in the Communist party—touting this, however, as evidence not of their guilt but of their virtue: at a time when the "capitalist" nations had been doing nothing to oppose Hitler, the Rosenbergs were staunch anti-fascists as well as upholders of the higher ideals of equality and social justice embodied in the Communist revolution and the Soviet experiment. When pressed, supporters would concede that some, like Greenglass, may have been guilty of espionage, but not Julius and Ethel. Now, this pillar of the argument having been knocked out from under them, they have fallen back on the insistence that what the Rosenbergs did was good, just, and necessary, performed by two citizens of the world in support of a wartime ally. The real villain of the piece was not the Rosenbergs; it was the U.S. government.  

As participants at the Washington conference repeatedly stipulated, however, the misdeeds of the U.S. government are not in question. Witnesses for the prosecution were indeed pressured, perjury was suborned, and Ethel Rosenberg was given the death penalty on less than fully conclusive evidence in an effort to coerce a confession from her husband. But to transform the fact of American misconduct into the focal point of the entire narrative is to engage in the same sort of subterfuge that the Rosenbergs' defenders perfected in the 1950s with such striking success among liberals and intellectuals, turning on its head the widespread and well-founded alarm over internal subversion and discrediting the cause of anti-Communism itself.

At the conference, Harvey Klehr detailed the way in which many of today's high-school history textbooks perpetuate this same ideological campaign, passing off the issue of Soviet espionage as a trivial matter, much less significant than government abuses and the manipulations of public opinion practiced by the American Right. As if to illustrate Klehr's point, the historian David Garrow, conceding at the conference that scholars like Radosh have proved their case, proceeded to accuse the "winners" of exaggerating the influence of ongoing defenses of the Rosenbergs like the meeting at NYU. The leading revisionist Ellen Schrecker similarly referred to the issue of Soviet espionage as a lamentable "fixation" of the Right: a "scab" at which the likes of Radosh and Klehr obsessively pick, refusing to allow it to heal.

But who is really picking at this scab?  That the Rosenberg case continues to be a fetish of the American Left—Exhibit A in its indictment of American evil—is blazingly apparent not just in the textbooks cited by Klehr, which are reprehensible enough, but in such popular works of middlebrow entertainment as Tony Kushner's Angels in America (one of the "angels" in that play being Ethel Rosenberg). Echoes live on, moreover, in the push to dismiss today's legitimate fears of domestic terrorism and Islamist extremism as contemporary equivalents of alleged cold-war hysteria, in this case ginned up by the administration of George W. Bush and the "vast right-wing conspiracy" to justify domestic repression and forestall world peace.

The Rosenbergs' devotion to the Communist party, to Moscow, and to Stalinist doctrine was total and absolute. Do analogous forms of devotion still exist? At the conference, it was left to Alexander Vassiliev, a former KGB officer who copied and smuggled out Soviet documents showing the Rosenbergs' guilt, to ask obliquely whether such a spy network might be created in America today—and to wonder whether so politically incorrect a thought could even be openly voiced.  

This brings us back to the political and moral choices of American Jews. To the degree that Jews have sympathized with radical revolutionary movements aimed at remaking whole societies and peoples, most of which have ended by creating variants of hell on earth, is not a more scrupulous Jewish accounting of ends and means long overdue?

And there is a specific obligation as well. As compared with the phenomenon of Nazism, still vividly present in modern consciousness, the vast, blood-soaked, and no less openly anti-Semitic tyranny that was Soviet Communism has been largely erased from mind. When it comes to individuals like the Rosenbergs, whose service to that tyranny involved high crimes against their fellow American citizens, technical guilt may now be grudgingly acknowledged but, for the most part, moral guilt is not. To the contrary, the alleged nobility of their motives is held to trump the all too evident evil of their actions. To the extent that American Jews sympathize with such perversions of morality, they owe themselves, and their fellow Americans, a reckoning.

Alex Joffe is a research scholar with the Institute for Jewish and Community Research.

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