Wednesday, October 22, 2014
Ethel Rosenberg with her brother, David Greenglass, in better days
David Greenglass died last summer at the age of 92, but the sleuths from the New York Times found out about it only last week. He had been living for the last half century in deep obscurity under a false name. His actual name will mean little to most of my readers, but he will be remembered by future American historians at a level at least one above the footnote. A footnote was the best I myself could do for him in The Anti-Communist Manifestos (p. 355n).
David Greenglass was the younger brother of Ethel Rosenberg, who with her husband Julius was electrocuted at Sing Sing on June 19, 1953. The Rosenbergs had been convicted of treasonous espionage for transmitting to Soviet agents stolen information containing “the secret of the atomic bomb.” The source of the documents was actually Greenglass, a spy working as a machinist at the top secret atomic installation in Los Alamos, NM. There was plenty of evidence to convict Julius Rosenberg. But Greenglass and his wife Ruth sealed Ethel’s fate as well with testimony claiming that she played an active conspiratorial role by creating with a typewriter a fair copy of some of information supplied by her brother. For their cooperation David was given a comparatively short prison sentence and Ruth escaped without doing time at all.
All four were Communists, actual Communists, with a shared background in a fascinating, vanished world: that of the politically radical intellectual and working-class Jewish life of New York in the Thirties. Many on the left regarded the Rosenbergs as innocent victims of Cold War hysteria and the Greenglasses as lying turncoats. It was an article of faith among Western Communists that the Rosenbergs had been framed. For most of them this was a sincere belief, not a cynical pose. As the execution date neared there were protest demonstrations in several American cities. In Europe, especially France and Italy, the protests were huge.
What can we say now, with certainty, probability, or even plausible possibility? Leaving aside the propriety of capital punishment, we can begin with the fact that there was no such thing as the secret of the atomic bomb, and it is at least uncertain that David’s crude sketch of the implosion lens was of practical use to the Russians. Intention is something else. Julius was certainly a Soviet agent and a spy. So was David, a gung-ho American Communist of the most naïve sort, who dissimulated his way through an incompetent security screening, but then did his level best to convert his fellow workers at Los Alamos to the Soviet cause! (The Keystone Cops dimension of our security services is a hallowed tradition). Ethel was certainly an ideologically committed Stalinist and almost certainly an active conspirator in the spy ring; but it is likely that the government prosecutors went after her primarily in a futile attempt to secure a confession from her husband. It is quite possible, as was his much later claim, that David’s direct testimony about her was perjured. He may have sacrificed his sister to save his wife--if Ruth was the one who really sat at the typewriter. It is possible, therefore, that Ethel was wrongly convicted—which is different from being innocent of the crime of which she was charged.
The term “historical climate” is a rather vague one, but historical climates do exist, even if they can usually be described only in retrospect and then with only partial accuracy. I had already entered my teenage years when first the Chambers-Hiss affair and then the Rosenberg trial devolved. I had strong political interests, and I followed them avidly. But they now seem nearly as distant and elusive as the ecclesiastical politics of Tudor England. I say “ecclesiastical” with intent, for I have discovered that the historiography of the Cold War often reveals a kind of theological superstructure usually associated with faith communities.
My book The Anti-Communist Manifestos (2009) had accidental beginnings. I had taught and admired Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, and I stumbled upon “Jan Valtin” and Out of the Night by the merest chance. I began to see that there had been a genuine literary dimension to those Cold War Years which were the dawn of my personal political consciousness. That was a perception likely to intrigue any literature professor, but I never would have written the book save for another encounter with the Zeitgeist of 1950. In April of 2007 NYU hosted a one-day conference on the theme “Alger Hiss and History”. I set off to this conference with the humility of a pupil rather than the confidence of a professor.
The venue for the series of talks was the large auditorium of the Law School on Washington Square South. This is a big room, and it was mostly full. I began to get the drift of things when the keynote speaker turned out to be Victor Navasky, former editor of the Nation magazine, a journal that spent approximately half a century arguing Hiss’s innocence and demanding his vindication. As the day wore on I came to realize that of the four hundred people in that room, three hundred and ninety of them were sincerely convinced of Hiss’s innocence! To hold any other view was closer to political criminality than mere stupidity. And like trees planted by the water, they would not be moved.
I then knew that I had to write a book. This not because I thought I had any new information or insight about Alger Hiss or Whittaker Chambers. I was and am convinced of Hiss’s espionage and his perjury, but so by now was practically everybody else—aside, that is, from the demographic wildly overrepresented in the NYU Law School auditorium. But I was now fascinated by the puzzling fact that a whole generation of western intellectuals—tens of thousands in Europe, but thousands here in America too—could have become true believers in the Soviet sham, and its full-throated supporters. I never came up with a comprehensive explanation, though I had fun looking for one.