THEY WERE NOT OUR PEOPLE-BUT, THEY WERE OUR PEOPLE
Eisenhower, Stalin, the Cold War, the Korean War, atomic bombs, atomic spies, air raid shelters, the “Red Scare”, McCarthyism and the Rosenbergs- in the mist of time these were early, if undigested terms, from my childhood. Ah, the Rosenbergs. That is what I want to write about today. Out of all of those undigested terms that name is the one that still evokes deep emotion in these old bones. For those who have forgotten, or those too young to remember, the controversy surrounding their convictions for espionage in passing information about the atomic bomb to the now defunct Soviet Union and their executions defined an essential part of the 1950’s, the hardening of the Cold War period in American history. Their controversial convictions and sentencing evoked widespread protests throughout the world. Thus, those who seek to learn the lessons of history, our working class history, and about justice American-style should take the time to carefully examine the case and come to some conclusions about it.
Frankly, I had not read, until recently when I read The Rosenberg File by Ronald Radosh and Joyce Milton (originally written in 1983 with a second edition in 1997 taking advantage of the opening of some archives in the post-Soviet period), any books on the case in a long while. Thus one of my tasks is to re-read the old material, read the new post-Soviet material, and make some suggestions about what to look for in trying to understand the history of the case. This commentary will thus express my own thoughts on the Rosenbergs more than answer the questions raised by the scholarship on the case.
And what questions drive the scholarship on the case? Was their trial a frame-up in classic American-style against leftist political opponents of the Cold War and American foreign policy? Were they, individually or collectively, “master spies” at the service of the Soviet Union? Were they innocent, if misguided, progressives caught up in the turmoil of the American “red scare” of the post-World War II period? Did the government through its FBI and other security agencies, its attorneys, its judges stumble into a case which would make many reputations? Did the American Communist Party, itself under severe scrutiny and persecution, betray the Rosenbergs? Did the various international campaigns on behalf of the couple work at cross purposes with their various demands for a new trial, reduction of sentence and clemency? What kind of people were these Rosenbergs? In short, were the Rosenbergs heroic Soviet spies, martyrs, dupes or innocents? Those are the questions thoughtful readers are confronted with and I will deal with at least some of them in due course in latter blogs.
My own evolution on the case goes something like this. In my young left-liberal and social democratic days I believed, based on my reading of the trial evidence and a belief then in the basic fairness of the American justice system, that unlike Sacco and Vanzetti the Rosenbergs were guilty of the charges but as an opponent of the death penalty they should not have been executed. As I moved left, closer to Marxist politics, I still believed they were ‘guilty’. However, I came to believe that the question of guilt or innocence was beside the point and their actions on behalf of the Soviet Union made them heroes of the international working class. That, dear reader, is still my basic position.
And what is the basis of that position. At one time I was ‘in the orbit’ of the American Communist party, a fellow traveler of Stalinism, if you will. One of the criteria posed by that position was the question of defending the gains of the Russian Revolution, as I then understood it. And that meant defense of the interests of the Soviet Union. I saw the Rosenberg case as part of that same continuum, those who could actively aid the Soviet cause, by any means necessary, were kindred spirits although other than spreading pro-Soviet propaganda I personally never did anything materially to aid the Soviet Union.
Those who have read this space over last year know that I am an ardent supporter of the work of Russian Bolshevik warrior Leon Trotsky. As one should also be aware there was, and is, a river of blood, including the physical destruction of the Trotskyist Left Opposition inside the Soviet Union and elsewhere and Trotsky’s own assassination by a Stalinist agent in 1940, between those two concepts of socialist society. Nevertheless to his dying breath Trotsky defended the Soviet Union against foreign and internal counterrevolution. Thus, despite that political divide the Rosenbergs’ action, according to their lights, was not affected by my change of political orientation. Nor should it have changed.
And who were the Rosenbergs? In the headline above I called them soldiers of the revolution and I would add here, as they saw it. I think that is a fair assessment and one that I hope they would have agreed with despite our divergence political perspectives. I like the picture in my mind of Julius Rosenberg standing up for the almost forgotten labor martyr Tom Mooney in the early 1930’s at City College of New York. I also like the picture of the ‘premature’ anti-fascist Ethel Rosenberg singing in Times Square in 1936 to raise money for the Spanish Republicans when damn few others raised their heads. They made, seemingly, every mistake in the spy book. They may have not been the natural leaders of a socialist revolution in America. However, no revolution can be made without such dedicated rank and filers, who stood up when it counted. They did not cry about their fate. And they did not turn into governmental informers to save their skins. Yes, my friends, those are indeed my kindred spirits. They were not our people-but, they were our people. And they should be yours. Some day when there is a lot most justice in the world than there is now a really fitting memorial to their memory will be in order in the socialist society of the future. In the meantime- Honor the Rosenbergs-Soldiers of the Revolution.