Ethel Rosenberg’s Mythic Innocence

The author of “The Eternal Return of Ethel Rosenberg” joins us for a discussion about his subject’s unending—and false—air of innocence.

Ethel Rosenberg looks out of a U.S. marshal’s car. Ed Jackson/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images.

Ethel Rosenberg looks out of a U.S. marshal’s car. Ed Jackson/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images.

Response
Oct. 28 2021
About the authors

Harvey Klehr is the Andrew W. Mellon professor of politics and history, emeritus, at Emory University. He has written many books on espionage in the United States and the history of the American Communist party.

Jonathan Brent is executive director of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. He was previously the editorial director at Yale University Press, where he founded the “Annals of Communism Series.”

Jonathan Silver is the editor of Mosaic.

If you’ve heard about the case against Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, you’ve probably heard about it spoken of in stridently critical tones: as an expression of McCarthyite excess, as an expression of American anti-Semitism, as a miscarriage of justice that reveals just how broken the American judiciary really is. The trial was convened in March 1951, and Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were found guilty of conspiracy to commit espionage for transmitting atomic secrets to the Soviet Union. The next month, they were sentenced to death and were finally executed by electrocution in June 1953. Some 70 years later, the idea that Ethel Rosenberg was improperly and unfairly convicted persists. In June of 2021, the British writer Anne Sebba published a new biography of Ethel Rosenberg, subtitled An American Tragedy. In it, she concludes that Ethel Rosenberg was a “profoundly moral woman . . . who betrayed no one.”

This month at Mosaic, the distinguished historian of American Communism and Soviet espionage in the United States, Harvey Klehr of Emory University, argues that Sebba’s recreation of Rosenberg’s life and of the trial that convicted her ignore evidence in order to sustain a fable about Ethel Rosenberg’s moral decency. In response, Klehr argues in his critique that there is a fundamentally deeper critique than the legal one, meeting Sebba’s contention on moral grounds. For Klehr demonstrates that Ethel Rosenberg did in fact betray her younger brother, helping to recruit him for espionage, and she betrayed her children and her country too.

To discuss the essay, we convened Klehr and Jonathan Brent, executive director of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research and previously the editorial director at Yale University Press, where he founded the Annals of Communism Series. Together with moderation by Jonathan Silver, Mosaic‘s editor, the two examined how and why the myth of Ethel Rosenberg’s innocence has become so untethered from evidence of her guilt. Watch the discussion, or read a transcript, below.

 

Video

 

 

Transcript

 

Jonathan Silver:

Before we get into the case of the Rosenbergs in particular: Harvey, I’d like to start by asking you for an overview so that we can get a sense of the political context. Can you just briefly tell us a little about how the Americans tried to secure their atomic technology, what the Americans knew at the time about efforts to steal it, and indeed about Soviet atomic espionage in general? I mean, how did it work? Where did the Soviets have people? What were the industrial and political and military vulnerabilities that they tried to exploit? Some of our readers will have seen media portrayals of Soviet spies, such as the television show The Americans, but just give us a sense of what it was like in the 1950s.

Harvey Klehr:

Well, it goes back, of course, to the 1940s, when the United States began developing an atomic bomb in the Manhattan Project. And Great Britain had also started to develop an atomic weapon, called Tube Alloys. They were eventually merged. From the very beginning, from 1942, 1943, even before the United States developed Los Alamos as the center of where the bomb would be built, the Soviet Union knew about it as a result of information it received from several spies, particularly in Great Britain at that early stage, and had recruited a number of atomic spies. The United States was aware that this was a matter of enormous secrecy and importance, and General Leslie Grove, who was in charge of the entire project, was determined to keep it secret, not only obviously from Nazi Germany, but also from the Soviet Union. And so when Los Alamos was built starting in 1943, it was a closed city. It was surrounded by barbed wire. It was in an isolated part of the United States in the New Mexico desert. And it was thought that it was secure.

The United States learned years later that it was not. There were at least, that we know of now, four atomic spies that the Soviet Union had planted at Los Alamos. One, Klaus Fuchs, was German-born, but he was part of the British project who was sent to Los Alamos. He was a spy. He turned over information to the Soviet Union. A second was David Greenglass, who was Julius Rosenberg’s brother-in-law. He was a machinist and he had been sent to Los Alamos just by luck. And a third was a young physics prodigy named Ted Hall, who had graduated from Harvard at the age of eighteen. He was immediately recruited to Los Alamos. And the fourth, whom we just learned about a couple years ago, was an engineer named Oscar Seborer.

Jonathan Silver:

Let me just interrupt you for a moment because that’s very important to point out. You shouldn’t have in your head that the people who are in possession of this information and who conveyed it to the Soviets were the scientists themselves. In some cases, they might have been, but they also could have been machinists who were working there. They were planted at different levels in different sectors of the industry.

Harvey Klehr:

That’s correct. And none of them knew about any of the others. And of course, that increased the Soviets’ confidence that the information they were getting was genuine. Stalin was paranoid. When the Soviets began developing their atomic bomb, Stalin was very worried that this was all disinformation that the Soviets were being fed. But the fact that the information was coming from different people at different levels of the atomic project was very reassuring to them. The United States really did not become aware that there were security problems until about 1948 or 1949. In 1949, when the Soviets exploded their atomic bomb, it quickly became apparent that it was an exact copy of the American bomb and it launched a frantic security effort to figure out what had happened.

The United States was in the process of decrypting Soviet communications from the war, a very complicated story that we don’t need to go into here. But one of the messages that American cryptanalysts were able to decrypt implicated Klaus Fuchs, who by this time was in charge of the British project to build an atomic weapon. Fuchs was arrested and swiftly confessed. He was sentenced to fourteen years in prison, and afterwards went to East Germany. Fuchs led the FBI to his courier, a man named Harry Gold. Gold was arrested and swiftly confessed, and he led the FBI to David Greenglass, from whom he had picked up information in New Mexico. Greenglass very quickly confessed and he implicated his brother-in-law, Julius Rosenberg. And so that’s the origin of the Rosenberg saga. Julius and Ethel were put on trial in 1951. They were convicted, and in 1953, they were executed.

Jonathan Silver:

Okay. So why don’t you give us a summary, or contour for us, the main lines of the trial itself? What were the charges and how were they substantiated?

Harvey Klehr:

The Rosenbergs were not tried for espionage. They were tried for conspiracy to commit espionage, and that made the prosecution’s task a little bit easier. The trial hinged on the testimony of Harry Gold and David and Ruth Greenglass. Gold, who was the courier who had picked up information from David Greenglass, testified about his role. He testified that one of the coded signals to identify himself to the Greenglasses was “I come from Julius” and he provided half of a torn Jell-O box top. Greenglass had the other half, and this was confirmation that he was a legitimate courier. David Greenglass and his wife, who by the way was an unindicted co-conspirator—

Jonathan Silver:

This is Ruth—

Harvey Klehr:

—Ruth Greenglass, correct. Ruth testified that shortly before she was to go to New Mexico to visit her husband—he was stationed at Los Alamos—she took an apartment in Albuquerque, and she went to the Rosenbergs’ apartment in Co-op City, and she was told what David was doing at Los Alamos; he was working on an atomic bomb, and she was asked to recruit him. She testified that both Julius and Ethel urged her to recruit David to turn over information. David confirmed that this is what Ruth told him when she came out to New Mexico, and David agreed to do it.

David talked about how he had turned over information. He had given it to Harry Gold when he had come. Before he had met Gold, he had been on leave in New York City, and at the Rosenbergs’ apartment he had been introduced to a woman named Anne Sidorovich, who was a Communist, a friend of the Rosenbergs, who was going to be the courier. After she left, Julius Rosenberg said, “Well, if she can’t make it, there’ll be another courier, and here’s how you’ll be able to identify him.” And that’s when the Jell-O ploy was devised.

That was the major testimony against Julius and Ethel. One additional piece of evidence that only emerged at the trial, it had not come up during the grand jury proceedings, is that Ruth Greenglass testified that Ethel had typed up the notes that David had brought back to New York with him, and David Greenglass confirmed his wife’s testimony. He said yes. That later became a point of some contention, because years and years later, David Greenglass said he had lied, that he had no recollection that Ethel had typed up those notes. He was merely supporting his wife. The evidence was strong enough to convict both Rosenbergs and they were pretty swiftly convicted. There was other evidence, but that was the gist of the evidence against them.

Jonathan Silver:

Of course, a great deal more evidence has come out since. We’ll come back to that soon. But, Jonathan, I’d like to ask now, if you can help us understand a little bit more about the cultural, political, and indeed Jewish dimension of this trial because, of course, it’s not just a matter of interpreting the law. The trial assumed almost immediately a sort of mythic stature in our culture, particularly focusing on the Jewish dimension, which is so important for its later being interpreted through the lens of anti-Semitism.

Jonathan Brent:

I would like to go back a little bit if I may to something that I think is important in terms of understanding the larger dimension of what I really take to be the Jewish tragedy in terms of the Soviet Union and the manipulation of the Jews by Stalin, which is this: before the outbreak of the war, Stalin had already determined—and this is something that I think a lot of cold-war historians may not entirely recognize, especially those who blame Eisenhower and Truman for the cold war—that there were two camps; there was the capitalist camp and there was the Communist camp. And they were inevitably going to remain at war with each other. They were essential enemies of each other. And so even before the war breaks out, he doesn’t know which of the capitalist enemies is going to remain, but it turns out to be America. And despite his relationship with Roosevelt, the premise of Stalin’s activity is that America, or Britain, or whoever it’s going to be, is our enemy. And therefore the espionage is absolutely not something being done by an ally, but in fact, being done by an enemy of the United States, that is using the United States, during this period, as a kind of pseudo-ally. Anyway, that’s the background and that can be established by a variety of documentation that is now available, and that has come out after the opening of the archives.

Coming back, and the reason I wanted to preface the Jewish story with this, is that as Stalin used America, he used the Jews. It was widely credited within the Jewish world in America, and in the Soviet Union as well, that Stalin had saved the remnant of European Jewry.

Jonathan Silver:

This is a very important point, and I want you to linger on it, because I think in the Jewish-American imagination, that’s very foreign to our recollections of it. I mean, Jews understand that there’s some kind of Churchill-Roosevelt heroism that is entirely responsible for the salvation of the remnant of Jewish Europe.

Jonathan Brent:

Right, but it was Soviet troops who liberated Auschwitz; they are the ones who discovered that horror. And contrary to what a lot of Jews thought and actually continued to think, it was by accident. Stalin had not intended to do this. In fact, there was a great deal of anti-Semitism within the Soviet army throughout the duration of the war, and Stalin was intent on whipping up the anti-Semitism within the country as a means of rallying his people against Hitler. This is complicated and we don’t need to go into all of it, but a lot of it had to do with his reliance on the Orthodox Church as a means of rallying widespread support for the war effort, and this of course meant anti-Semitism. And so Stalin had no intention of rescuing the Jews, but the Jews were useful, you see. And so that became a great propaganda lever for him, just as the trip in 1943 of Solomon Mikhoels and Itzik Feffer to the United States to raise money for the Soviet war effort produced an outpouring of enthusiasm among Jews for the Soviet war effort.

You have to understand something: Stalin was the only European leader who fought, who would not give in despite massive defeats by the Nazi army, by the German army; Stalin refused to back down, to give in. He accepted defeat after defeat after defeat after defeat, and finally was able to get the Nazis at Stalingrad and turn the war around. But he had no intention actually of saving the Jews—he used them. I remember so clearly the despair of my own parents talking about the Rosenbergs and seeing it somehow linked with McCarthyism at that time, in the early 50s, and the two things became inextricable in the minds of so many Jewish people. We were saved by this Soviet power and now it is American anti-Semitism that is trying to destroy us in America. That is a linkage that has been very, very difficult to break.

Harvey Klehr:

I think something that reinforces the point that Jonathan is making is that around the time of the Rosenbergs’ trial and execution, of course, there’s a huge anti-Semitic campaign, not only in the Soviet Union, but in Eastern Europe. And particularly the most outstanding example is in Czechoslovakia, where the entire leadership of the Czechoslovakian party is put on trial and charged with being agents of fascism, American imperialism, and crucially, Zionism. I don’t remember the exact figures, but the vast majority of those people that were convicted and executed were Jewish. And the Rosenberg case becomes a perfect foil for Communist propaganda. Communists are being accused of anti-Semitism, and they say oh, no, no, no, we’re not the anti-Semites, it’s the United States that are the anti-Semites.

Jonathan Brent:

Right. But, this anti-Semitic campaign in Eastern Europe and in Russia, at the same time of the doctors’ plot and the trial of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee and the murder of Jews and the arrest of Jews and the fear of expulsion and so on and so forth, is really Stalin’s way of attacking the United States. Again, Jews are being used as pawns here. And of course, in America, the doctors’ plot, nobody knew exactly what to make of it. One of the doctors who was arrested in the doctors’ plot, when he was accused of undermining Soviet power and wanting to kill Stalin, he said, you’ve got to be crazy. He said this to his interrogators. He said, you have to be nuts. Stalin saved my people. How could I possibly imagine that I would want murder him or overturn Soviet power? And that attitude was widespread throughout. The whole antagonism toward Israel is another big story. But yes, Harvey’s quite right.

Jonathan Silver:

Jonathan, you just brought us into the strategic concept of Stalin and the way that both geopolitics and the Jews could be used as levers against his adversaries, in this case us [that is, the United States]. But I wonder if now you can step inside the American side of this and particularly help us understand the appeal of Communism to younger Americans, especially for people like the Rosenbergs. What was it about the ideology, the policy impulse, the way of life that Communism offered that was so persuasive to so many.

Jonathan Brent:

Well, by the time the Rosenbergs were conducting their espionage, I would say Communism really offered very little except agony and suffering. But all of that was very carefully disguised in the propaganda that reached the West. In the 1920s, and even in the beginning of the ’30s, toward the middle of the ’30s, the Soviet Union was seen as the mecca for the flourishing of Jewish culture. There was more Yiddish publishing, for instance, in the Soviet Union in the late ’20s and early ’30s than anywhere else in the world. They invited American Jews, poets, writers, workers to come to this homeland of freedom and equality. Isaac Babel, the great Soviet writer, had a chance to leave the Soviet Union in the late 1920s. He was in Paris with his wife and daughter. And he says to someone, here’s my choice: either I’m a free man in the Soviet Union, or I’m a cab driver in Paris. Now, which do you think I should be? And that’s the way a lot of people saw it, because there was this myth of equality.

It’s so hard for us, to a great extent assimilated, free American Jews to realize that the Jewish people of Eastern Europe, from whom many of us are descended here in the United States, they were second class citizens. They were beaten down by the Poles, by the Ukrainians; 95 percent of the Jews were murdered by the Lithuanians even before the Holocaust began. And here, all of a sudden is the Soviet Union saying we accept you. You can be Trotsky, the leader of the Red Army. You can be magnates. You can be scientists. All of a sudden everything is open for the Jews in the Soviet Union. The fact that it then comes to a halt and the Jews are then used by Stalin at the end of the ’30s and in the ’40s is something that is kind of invisible, it’s behind the veil to most Americans. They didn’t see it.

Harvey Klehr:

I think that another factor when we talk about the attraction of Communism in the American Jewish community is that we have to recognize that it was limited. We’ve been talking about it in sort of global terms, but in fact the number of American Jews who became Communists, while a significant number, was a tiny minority of the American Jewish community. And if you look at New York, which was the center both of Jewish life in America and of Communist life in America, in Jewish New York, the vast majority certainly of the institutions of the Jewish people, as well as the numbers of them, were fiercely anti-Communist. The garment-worker unions, for example, were controlled by socialists, Jewish socialists, Bundists, who were fiercely anti-Communist. Many of them had originally been sympathetic to the Russian Revolution—it had overthrown the tsar, it had criminalized anti-Semitism, at least on paper, it had, as Jonathan mentioned, encouraged Yiddish culture. But very, very quickly the dictatorial aspects of Soviet life had soured these people on Communism. In the garment-worker unions, for example, opposition to the socialist leadership came from Communists, and there were fierce battles in the garment-worker unions between the socialists and the Communists.

And that’s the context in which a minority, but a not insignificant minority of Jews are attracted to the Soviet Union, to this appeal of an idyllic society and a utopia that is being created in the Soviet Union. And both of the Rosenbergs were attracted to that. Then, you have the impact of the depression on the American Jewish community. Julius Rosenberg graduated from CCNY, he was a fairly indifferent engineering student, but he found it hard to get a job. Jewish engineers, like other Jewish professionals, faced discrimination in the United States. And so, again, there’s the appeal of Communism to some segment of the Jewish community.

The final factor is anti-fascism. Beginning in the mid-1930s there’s the civil war in Spain. The Soviet Union supports the Spanish Republic against the Franco forces, which are supported by Nazi Germany. And the American Communist Party recruits some 3,500 Americans to go fight in the international brigades. A majority of those people were Jewish. So there’s this image that it’s the Soviet Union and Communists that are fighting fascism. Now, with the Rosenbergs, at the time of the Nazi-Soviet pact, when the Soviet Union allies with Nazism, that doesn’t bother the Rosenbergs, that doesn’t cause them to reconsider their devotion. So it’s not anti-fascism that is the deciding factor.

Earlier, Jonathan, you mentioned the policy positions. For the Rosenbergs and for other American Communists, the chief foreign-policy position was support for the Soviet Union. So when the Soviet Union was pro-fascist, they were pro-fascist. When the Soviet Union was anti-fascist, they were anti-fascist.

Jonathan Brent:

And you have to understand, as you ask why, how could this be possible? One of the most important elements of becoming a real Communist is what the Soviets called, what Lenin called, iron discipline. You must support the party above all things, and the party is never wrong. The party is never wrong. You may not understand it, but it will become clear in due course. The party is never wrong. And so, it still is mystifying how American Jews could support the Soviet Union after the 1939 pact. But it had a lot to do with this internalization of party discipline.

Jonathan Silver:

I want to come back to this, but to return now to the trial itself, Harvey, with the gradual release, since the trial, of additional relevant documents, scholars have tried to advance the proposition that although evidence abounds about Julius Rosenberg’s guilt, Ethel Rosenberg was always known to the prosecutors to have played a relatively minor role in her husband’s spy ring, and in fact was prosecuted in order to apply pressure on him. The thinking was that he would be more willing to divulge information in order to save his wife’s life. And in the end, by not divulging code names and identities of additional Soviet agents, the Rosenbergs basically called the prosecution’s bluff. What do you make of that interpretation of the case?

Harvey Klehr:

Well, I think that there’s some truth to it. Ethel was not a spy. I mean, she never had access to secret information. But remember that they were tried on the charges of conspiracy to commit espionage, and legally somebody that commits an overt act in furtherance of the conspiracy is guilty. And that’s what made Ethel vulnerable. Ruth Greenglass had testified that Ethel had solicited her to persuade David Greenglass to spy. Now, the Rosenberg defenders over the years argued that Ruth was lying. And certainly, both Ruth and David had good reason to lie. I mean, Ruth was an unindicted co-conspirator, David had confessed, so they were both very vulnerable.

Through the release of information from Russian archives, we now know that Ruth had testified truthfully about that. There’s a document, actually written by Julius Rosenberg and sent to Moscow, which says explicitly that Ethel had persuaded Ruth to get her brother to spy. So, the prosecution knew that its evidence against Ethel was legitimate, but she was a minor figure. She was guilty of conspiracy. And they arrested her, as you say, to put pressure on Julius. There were other members of his spy ring who were not involved in atomic espionage, but radar, sonar, jet engines and so on. And they needed Julius to indicate who those people were. Some of them they knew, but they had no evidence, so they can continue to roll this ring up.

Jonathan Silver:

And I suppose some of them the government would’ve known from its own espionage efforts, but in order to continue to veil those sources and methods it needed another source of justification.

Harvey Klehr:

That’s right. The government knew because of the Venona documents, these decryptions, they knew that Julius was guilty. The Venona documents said very little about Ethel, other than that she knew what her husband was up to. It’s other material that has confirmed Ethel’s involvement. But they knew that, for example, William Pearl and Alfred Sarant and Joel Barr were spies, but they couldn’t use Venona material in court because it came from decrypted cables, and they didn’t want to reveal that they had decrypted that material.

Jonathan Silver:

So now, I want to get to Anne Sebba’s new biography of Ethel Rosenberg. Harvey, what’s wrong with it?

Harvey Klehr:

A lot. It’s factually challenged. Either she’s not aware of what’s come out of the archives over the past 30 years, or she’s aware of it and she just deliberately avoids dealing with it because it would be too much of a challenge to her thesis. She makes some pretty silly statements. At times, she suggests that Ethel knowing about what her husband was up to, and advising Ruth Greenglass to talk to her brother, is just a minor thing, and is not evidence—well, it is evidence; it’s evidence of conspiracy. At times, she seems to suggest that espionage is not terribly important. There are all kinds of factual issues that I went over in the essay.

The other problem is that it seems to me there’s a kind of a moral failure on her part. That is, she admires Ethel because she was loyal. She says she never betrayed anybody. Unlike all the other characters in this terrible tragedy—David Greenglass and Ruth, who betrayed Ethel and Julius—and all these other figures, Ethel betrayed nobody. But of course she did. She did. She betrayed her children. Sebba makes it seem as if Ethel had no agency; she was caught up in this drama that she couldn’t escape, but she could escape. All she had to do was tell the truth, and even the week before the execution the government was prepared to stop the execution, if she would tell the truth. She refused.

Jonathan Silver:

And of course, one should not minimize or trivialize this: as you correctly note in the essay, not only does she betray her children, she betrayed her country. That’s not nothing, morally speaking.

Harvey Klehr:

That’s correct. And the one person whom she remained loyal to, of course, was Julius, who had gotten her involved in the espionage. We’re not privy to what Julius and Ethel said to each other in the years that they were involved in the espionage, but there’s no indication in the record that they ever considered what their involvement meant for their children. And of course, it made their children orphans, and their children were young. I don’t want to minimize the horrible choice that Ethel Rosenberg faced, but it was her choice. And ultimately, she chose loyalty to a man who had betrayed his country. And I would argue, betrayed her loyalty to her children.

Jonathan Brent:

If I could just say, this is exactly the kind of choice that the party, in exercising its power over individuals, always presented people with. That is to say that your loyalty is to the party, your loyalty is to the higher idea, and individual suffering—it’s just an episode of the revolution.

Harvey Klehr:

I mentioned in the essay two of the Rosenbergs’ most ardent defenders, Walter and Miriam Schneir, who had authored the first full-length argument that they were not guilty back in the 1960s, called Invitation to an Inquest. When the Venona documents appeared, the Schneirs wrote a short apology, not an apologia, because they didn’t apologize for anything. They said, “We were wrong. Okay, we were wrong,” but no apologies, no regrets for their defense of Julius’s refusal to admit he was guilty. The Rosenberg defenders said they’re not guilty and so they couldn’t confess, because that would be telling a lie. Now, they’re guilty, so why couldn’t they confess? Well, the argument, the Schneirs say, was because that would implicate the American Communist Party in espionage. It would harm the party.

And there’s one additional little gem that was discovered years later: the Communist Party of the United States was quite silent about the Rosenbergs through the trial. They did not give it a lot of attention. And one or two ex-party people years later said the reason was, the party was afraid that the Rosenbergs might confess. And that would be disastrous for the party. When the party became convinced that they were going to be martyrs, then it leapt to their defense.

Jonathan Silver:

Now, Jonathan, Harvey has already reminded us that, though a great many Jews were persuaded by the arguments and sensibilities and visions and dreams of the Communist Party, nevertheless, only a minority of Jews were adherents and defenders still. Having already shared with us some of the most egregious examples of Soviet anti-Semitism, help us understand why people like the Rosenbergs and their Jewish defenders were so uninterested and unmoved by those examples of Soviet anti-Semitism?

Jonathan Brent:

Well, I think a lot of it comes back precisely to this question of the party and the loyalty to the party. Because, as many writers have attested from Koestler to Vasily Grossman and numerous others, the power that the party exercised over the identity of the people was really monumental. It’s very difficult for us to understand unless you happen to be a political fanatic today. But I don’t think there’s otherwise a psychological explanation for this, or even a sociological explanation for this. This is the deviltry of this ideology. It is the real devilish power that it has. And Harvey’s quite right that, although there were many prominent Jewish Communists, they represented a minority, even in Eastern Europe.

You have to remember that Stalin went after the leaders of the Bund, Victor Alter and Henryk Erlich, and arrested them, and then they committed suicide. The standing of the Communist party among socialists was very negative actually. But within that little core group, the loyalty was beyond our understanding. There were American Communists who left their children in the Soviet Union. And Harvey writes about this in The Secret World of American Communism. And apparently, they weren’t that troubled by it. It was what they had to do, because everybody is just pawn. Everyone is just a pawn in the great game that the party is playing to achieve its ends.

Jonathan Silver:

In light of the resolution of all the difficulties of history at its end, when this utopian form will finally descend upon mankind, in order to get there eggs will need to be broken for the omelet to be made.

Gentlemen, I’d like to ask you to speak to an eighteen-year-old viewer, a college freshman who’s watching us right now, aware of the fact that Ethel Rosenberg was executed by the state almost 70 years ago. So what does this matter? Why are we talking about this?

Harvey Klehr:

Well, I think, there are a couple reasons. There’s a segment of the American population that can’t let it go, in part, I think, because they think that it says something very negative about American society and American justice. And I don’t want to defend every aspect of the trial, and certainly the aftermath. I argue in the essay that I think the death sentence was unwarranted for Ethel. And even somebody like J. Edgar Hoover thought the death sentence was unwarranted. So one doesn’t have to defend everything that happened in the Rosenberg case, but I think that it’s interesting to me that so much attention is lavished on what happened to Ethel Rosenberg in particular. Julius and Ethel, but Ethel in particular, and so little attention is lavished on Americans, as Jonathan mentioned, who went to the Soviet Union and died in the Gulag. Several thousand of them, we now know. And their stories are untold, nobody seems to care about that or care about them.

There’s actually a very interesting piece in the current issue of the New Yorker magazine about a black man named Lovett Fort-Whiteman, whom I had written about in earlier books. Fort-Whiteman moved to the Soviet Union in the 1920s. He was a fairly prominent black Communist in the United States. He was sent to the Gulag after he was denounced by other American Communists in Moscow. And he died in the Gulag. It’s a very, very interesting and affecting article. Does anybody know about or care about Lovett Fort-Whiteman? Did he become a symbol of Soviet hostility to American blacks? No.

So I think part of the reason that Ethel Rosenberg became a symbol is because it’s thought that her story reflects badly on American society and the American legal system.

Jonathan Silver:

Right. Jonathan, another way to ask this is why the myth of Ethel Rosenberg’s innocence persists in light of so much evidence of her guilt?

Jonathan Brent:

Right. Well, the myth is not dependent on evidence, the myth is a matter of belief, which transcends evidence, and we see that today in so many parts of the political arena, that evidence doesn’t matter to those people who are true believers. But the hostility of American capitalism toward Jews is, in a way, captured by a front page, that we have at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, of the Dearborn Independent, penned by Henry Ford, which is “Is Einstein a Bolshevik?” Front page, 1920s. And this conjoining of Jews and Bolsheviks and the opprobrium and sense of disloyalty of Jews to the United States, it was promoted by people like Ford and by Father Coughlin and by Lindbergh, and by the whole America First movement, and by the intense anti-Semitism of the 1920s and 30s. And the foothold that Nazism had taken in the United States in academia because Nazism was the protector of Western civilization. That’s the way they presented themselves, that’s why there were Nazis at Yale and at Harvard and at Princeton and Columbia. They came to speak, they were students and so on and so forth because they were the protectors of American civilization, and these commie-Jew bastards were going to destroy American civilization.

I think that the memory of that, and if you have seen that little seven-minute clip of A Night at the Garden, this Nazi rally in February 1939, of American men and American women and children raising their hand in the Nazi salute to the American flag, side by side with the Nazi flag, you begin to understand a little bit why. The left in this country that seized upon the Rosenberg trial and on various other things see it as such an essential part of the mythology of the protests against this American anti-Semitism. That was real, it’s not made up. It was real. America closed its doors to Jewish immigration in 1924 and it was very, very real in the United States, which is also something difficult, I think, for us to appreciate today.

Jonathan Silver:

That is persuasive, as far as it goes, as a matter of historical re-creation. But to ask the practical question: Anne Sebba writes this book, she was given a book contract and it was published just recently. She was given a book contract, I don’t know, two years ago or something, so that means that someone thinks that there’s a gigantic market of people who are nourished by the persistence of this myth.

Harvey Klehr:

I think Jonathan is right. As Americans, we like to think that facts trump myths, but they don’t. How many people out there are convinced that Lee Harvey Oswald did not kill John Kennedy? That the CIA and the FBI conspired to do it? The evidence in the Rosenberg case, I think for a lot of people, does not matter. And she becomes a handy stick with which to beat American society. I was reminded of her when I was reading Dara Horn’s new book, People Love Dead Jews. Well, there’s a segment of the American left that loves the Rosenbergs because they’re dead.

It’s remarkable that more than 300 Americans we now know cooperated with Soviet intelligence during World War II. Are they regarded as traitors? Are they regarded in negative terms? No, not at all. By a significant portion of the American left and a significant portion of the American academy, places and institutions that are respected institutions in American society, continue to glorify people who cooperated with the Soviet Union and with Stalin. And if they had cooperated with Hitler, they would not be admired and the people who defended them would not be admired, and yet, here we are.

Jonathan Brent:

And I think the ideology of the American left and the way it developed over the last 30 years has had a huge role in this. And the Vietnam War, we can’t forget about the Vietnam War and the resistance to the war by the left and by the youth culture. The university youth culture throughout America was further confirmation, I think, of the need for this myth that American civilization, American society, American capitalism was going in the wrong direction.

Harvey Klehr:

Yeah. And that it was explicitly linked to anti-Communism. That anti-Communism had led America astray and had led to Vietnam. It had led to the Korean War, it was the source of all evil. And then—of course, as Jonathan mentioned earlier, we haven’t talked about him very much—it’s linked to Joe McCarthy. And the link to the Rosenberg case is that one of the prosecutors in the case is Roy Cohn, who later became McCarthy’s chief aide, which again is further confirmation of the fact that this is all part of an effort to demonize Communism, to suggest that Communism is the enemy.

Jonathan Brent:

It took root in the American academy. In history departments, in English departments, and so much of the effort of the last 25 years in English departments and history departments is to undermine confidence in institutions and so forth. And I’ll just tell you, because of the fervor that this elicits from people, when I published a book on the Spanish Civil War that demonstrated, I think to many people and to me, that the Soviets did not intend to rescue the Republic, rather to subvert it by various means through their efforts, and that the Lincoln Brigades were really dupes of the Soviet Union, a member of the history department of Yale University threatened to sue me personally for publishing that book. The fire is still there.

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