To the Editor:
It was distressing to read Eric M. Breindel’s article, “The Communists & the Committees” [January]. COMMENTARY should be used for purposes of enlightenment and not as a forum for reviving and justifying the anti-Communist hysteria which swept the country and destroyed thousands of lives and jeopardized our basic freedoms during the period of McCarthyism. To attack the victims of McCarthy . . . in the new decade, when the passage of time and the lessons of history have finally healed some of the wounds of past excesses, is a new crime against humanity. . . .
It is shocking to find someone teaching a course on McCarthyism at Harvard University whose words and writings reflect his acceptance of the basic spirit of McCarthyism. There are, alas, many anti-Communist intellectuals who criticized the late Senator McCarthy, not for his attacks on Communists but only for including countless numbers of non-Communists in his definition of “Communist”—for example, including Presidents Roosevelt, Truman, and Eisenhower in his statement about “Twenty Years of Treason.” Those anti-Communists were fighting a serious evil, but that was merely an inevitable extension of the primary, fundamental evil which they failed to understand.
The basic, undemocratic, un-American evil was not the false charge that those who did not see things McCarthy’s way were Communists or dupes. The basic evil was the inference that Communists were non-people, inhuman, traitors, or enemy agents. In a democratic society, free thought and free speech and fundamental liberties are respected; dissent and criticism must be welcomed. Be they Republicans or Communists, supporters of Marxism or capitalism, geneticists or behaviorists, all should be free to think and to speak without fear of being branded un-American. Once that brand is placed on any group, all who share any of their beliefs lose a portion of their own freedoms. Criticism of Communists and all groups should be welcomed; the false charge of “enemy” or “betrayer” is what must be repudiated.
The concept that the Communist is less loyal than the conservative or Republican or Democrat is the basic evil. McCarthy and Nixon, HUAC and the FBI pinned the tag “disloyal” or “traitor” on the American Communists, and soon this tag was extended to include those who shared some of the policies and programs advocated by the Communist party. Support the fight for equal rights, the struggle for jobs and welfare and social security, the minimum-wage laws and rent control laws, and you are suspect! Oppose the wars in Vietnam and Korea, oppose the appeasement policies of Neville Chamberlain, oppose the huge military budget, war against the “military-industrial complex,” as did President Eisenhower, and you are suspect! . . .
Mr. Breindel disbelieves Lillian Hellman, Vivian Gornick, Jessica Mitford, and others who speak knowledgeably about the Communists as good and sincere and dedicated individuals who may well have been foolish or misguided. . . . To Mr. Breindel, however, Communism is evil incarnate, and no proof or discussion is needed. A Communist? Guilty, whatever is charged.
Let us examine how blind anti-Communism enslaves Mr. Breindel’s judgment in connection with the Rosenberg case: he writes that the Rosenbergs’ attorney “essentially conceded their party ties in his trial summation.” Aside from the falsity of his statement, it totally negates his thesis that “contemporary defenders of the Rosenbergs should find it effective to acknowledge what was for so long deliberately obfuscated. . . .” The major vindication organization, the National Committee to Reopen the Rosenberg Case (NCRRC), has never suggested, as implied by Mr. Breindel, that Julius and Ethel Rosenberg lied about their party ties in a series of loyalty oaths and other security-related inquiries.
Perhaps Mr. Breindel is privy to some secret information tying Ethel Rosenberg to loyalty oaths and security inquiries? If so, he ought to offer his proof, instead of seeming to justify her conviction and electrocution. If he actually opposed her execution (because of the dearth of evidence against her or the unprecedented nature of the sentence), then why is he defaming the victim instead of Judges Kaufman and Vinson and Jackson, and Roy Cohn and President Eisenhower who played their tarnished roles in the electrocutions?
Mr. Breindel is clever, always leaving doors open so he may deny the inevitable contradictions in his article. His article doesn’t say he considers the Rosenbergs guilty as charged, yet that is the inevitable inference. He must know that the convictions rested on the uncorroborated testimony of the Green-glasses, brother and sister-in-law of Ethel Rosenberg, who purchased leniency and freedom with their unsupported testimony. He must be aware that positive proof of the Greenglasses’ trial perjuries exists, so he does not say anything about such perjuries or Rosenberg guilt. That they were Communists seems clear to him, and such “guilt” seems enough to satisfy him. It’s as though he considers it a mere quibble whether they were also guilty of spying.
Mr. Breindel attributes to Rosenberg activists the supposedly incredible thoughts that the FBI, Nixon, and HUAC had conjured up an “atomic hoax.” Is he really unaware that the “incredible” is the fact? He must know that the death sentences were founded on the supposed transmission of “the secret of the atom bomb.” But atomic scientists have completely repudiated this as a myth of the hysterical period. They have pointed out that there is no “secret” of the atom bomb, just as there is no secret of the law of gravity. Less than one year after the execution of the Rosenbergs, the New York Times quoted the Atomic Energy Commission’s spokesman, James Beckerly: “Atom bombs and hydrogen bombs are not matters that can be stolen and transmitted in the form of information” (March 17, 1954). “Thus the Rosenberg-Sobell case, J. Edgar Hoover’s “Case of the Century,” was a giant nuclear hoaxl
Mr. Breindel faced a real dilemma in dealing with Victor Navasky’s book, Naming Names. It seems that all or most of the “unfriendly witnesses” before HUAC refused to betray their friends and associates, though it meant loss of security, money, and employment. These, for the most part, he considers Communists or sympathizers. The ex-Communists and the other “friendly witnesses” saved their jobs by betraying long-time friends. Were the Communists more ethical? No, is his reasoned reply. He says they acted as ordered by the Communist party to carry out party objectives. That such action appeared to be more honorable, or a more vigorous defense of the Bill of Rights, was purely coincidental. . . .
There are exceptions, Mr. Breindel admits, but when you find a Communist behaving decently, or morally, or ethically, it must be because of party instructions, masking some nefarious purpose
Brooklyn, New York
To the Editor:
Eric M. Breindel’s article, written by one who teaches about McCarthyism, has all the evils of that “ism.” Because it not-too-subtly implies the guilt of the Rosenbergs and the supposed deviousness of their defenders, implying the guilt of all Communists, we of the Rosenberg family, the brother and sisters of Julius Rosenberg, have written this letter. We are distressed that long after the unfairness of the trial has been established, and proof of the perjuries of the chief prosecution witnesses has been confirmed by the FBI files released under the Freedom of Information Act, COMMENTARY continues to allow references to Rosenberg “guilt” to go unchallenged.
The trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg took place during the war in Korea, when McCarthyism was at its height and “Communism” was a frightening word. Linking Communism with espionage was Judge Kaufman’s aim; every time he spoke, he used the word “Communism.” . . .
Every constitutional right was taken away from Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. They were incarcerated for eight months (on impossible bail) before the trial, not knowing how to prepare their defense because they received no specifics about the charges. Prior to the trial, the FBI used the New York Post (and the rest of the media) to publicize its version of the story. The headlines read “Atomic Spies”—these terrifying words inflamed the public against Julius and Ethel unjustly. . . .
Max Elitcher, the first witness, was a former classmate of Julius Rosenberg and Morton Sobell. Unlike Sobell, Elitcher allowed himself to become a false witness for the government. Defense attorneys, under cross-examination, made him admit that he had falsely signed a non-Communist affidavit while working for the Navy Ordnance Department. He faced perjury charges at the very least if he did not testify according to the prosecution’s desires. Other witnesses followed, all subject to the same duress!
When both David and Ruth Greenglass were testifying (falsely, as the FBI files now reveal), two FBI men sat in front of them, encouraging them to do a good job with their studied and rehearsed testimony. . . .
David Greenglass testified that an expensive console table with a hole in the bottom to be used for microfilming purposes was given as a gift to Julius Rosenberg from the Russians. Unfortunately, Julius stood alone in the courtroom, without his family. His mother was ill, and his brother and sisters were too frightened to attend the trial. Our sister Ethel [Goldberg Appel] first learned about the console-table testimony long after the trial and sentencing. (She recalls the youthful, pale face of Julius on her first visit to him after the trial. He protested bitterly, “For possession of a typewriter Ethel received death!” David Greenglass had testified that Ethel did the typing of the atom-bomb secrets, though not a single letter or document was shown in evidence.) It was at this visit that we learned about David Green-glass’s false testimony about the console table. The defense did not know that the console table was the only piece of furniture worth saving when the furnishings of the apartment were sold to a junk dealer; it was the only new piece of furniture Julius and Ethel had ever bought.
The table was promptly located; it had no hole on the bottom for microfilming, as Greenglass had testified; the chalk marks underneath, later verified by a Macy’s salesman, confirmed that it was bought at Macy’s for $22, as Julius had testified. This strong evidence of David Greenglass’s perjury, after our sister signed an affidavit giving the true facts about the console table, was denied review by Judge Kaufman and the Appeals Court. Files later showed that Judge Kaufman interfered improperly with the appeal.
We are constantly haunted by the strange behavior of Judge Kaufman. Our mother, Sophie, and sister Ethel attended the judicial clemency appeal by defense attorney Emanuel Bloch. In denying clemency, Judge Kaufman spoke with intense anger; his little round face was a fiery red and his small body rose to the high tip of the chair upon which he was seated.
A final appeal by the Rosenberg family took place in the judge’s chamber. We entered a large room. Judge Kaufman was seated at his desk in the center of the room, four seats were placed at the left side of the judge for our mother, our brother, and two sisters. After we were seated, in marched prosecutors, assistants, FBI men, all involved in the prosecution. Emanuel Bloch did not attend, but he stressed that we should not discuss any legal questions since this was a clemency hearing. Mother spoke first; she stood up and firmly and loudly said, looking toward Judge Kaufman, “I want to see your face; don’t spill innocent blood and make orphans of their two young sons; Ethel and Julius are innocent.” In a trembling voice, Ethel read the letter she had sent to President Truman appealing for the lives of Julius and Ethel. One line, praised by Julius affectionately and proudly, went as follows: “Is it customary for the courts to protect the guilty and kill the innocent?” This sentence had no meaning to Judge Kaufman, but when read to Eleanor Roosevelt she opened her eyes wide.
We, the Rosenberg family, are proud of being related to two outstanding Americans who strongly defended rights guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States, rights which were denied them. They wanted very much to live, but gave their young lives because they were innocent. They were unjustly tried and convicted for a crime they never committed.
The Rosenberg Family,
Dave, Lena, and Ethel
Bronx, New York
To the Editor:
Eric M. Breindel emphasizes that the Rosenbergs went to great lengths to conceal their Communist party affiliation. Yet such concealment pales when compared with the conduct of the prosecution and of the FBI in the Rosenberg-Sobell trial based on charges of conspiracy to commit espionage.
What Mr. Breindel calls the “considerable literature produced by Rosenberg activists” was in fact devoted to analyzing the trial evidence and the new evidence uncovered after the trial. Nobel scientist and Rosenberg activist Harold C. Urey wrote an analysis with which Albert Einstein concurred. Dr. Urey wrote that the Rosenbergs’ conviction hinged on the word of the self-confessed unsentenced accomplices David and Ruth Green-glass versus the word of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg; that he found the Rosenbergs more believable than the Greenglasses; that the testimony of key witness Harry Gold was unbelievable; that the testimony of the only espionage witness (Max Elitcher) against Morton Sobell was improbable. In a later expanded analysis he wrote that the new-evidence motion of June 1953 confirmed the Rosenbergs’ testimony, showed the Greenglasses’ perjury, and confirmed his conviction that the Rosenbergs were not guilty. That motion was initiated, argued, considered, and a new hearing denied in District Court, in the Court of Appeals, and in the Supreme Court over a total of ten days, weekends included.
FBI files which I have read show that the FBI knew from pretrial documents . . . that Harry Gold had invented a succession of fictitious spies and meetings. Why did the prosecution use this pathological liar as a third key witness? Why have major parts of the record been destroyed? To be specific: four months after the trial, before the first appeal of the double death sentence, the FBI disposed of the one paper that supposedly supported the crucial atom-bomb-rendezvous testimony of key witnesses Gold and Greenglass. FBI notes of their interviews with Greenglass before his confession have been destroyed. The FBI interrogated Greenglass twice about uranium theft at Los Alamos, New Mexico. At the trial he falsely denied such interrogations. The entire New Mexico U.S. Attorney’s file on Greenglass was destroyed in 1969.
The following disclosures from released FBI files . . . [show that] on February 8, 1951 there was a secret meeting of the Joint Congressional Committee on Atomic Energy in which the Rosenberg prosecutions were discussed. . . . At the meeting Assistant U.S. Attorney Miles Lane told the committee that “the case is not too strong against Mrs. Rosenberg. But for the purpose of acting as a deterrent I think it is very important that she be convicted too, and given a stiff sentence.” Soon after, just ten days before trial, the case against Ethel was strengthened considerably: the Greenglasses now recalled that Ethel had typed atom-bomb data.
Dr. Urey had been listed on the prosecution’s witness list, along with Robert Oppenheimer and many others who were never called. He was never contacted by the prosecution or called as a witness. At a dinner in his honor given by the Chicago Sobell Committee on February 12, 1955 he stated: “. . . My concern with this trial has stemmed more from a belief that the integrity of justice, as it is administered in the United States, is at stake. If proper trials cannot be secured for unpopular people—and it is evident from the publicity of this trial that all those charged with crimes were unpopular—then it will become impossible to secure justice for other, somewhat less unpopular people and so on until no justice is possible at all. . . .”
I hope that both Eric M. Breindel and your influential journal will focus on this ethical issue posed by the Rosenberg-Sobell prosecution instead of on the diversionary questions of open versus concealed Communist affiliations.
Muriel Goodman Goldring
Brooklyn, New York
Eric M. Breindel writes:
Aaron Katz raises two factual points:
- He comments on the “falsity” of my assertion that the Rosenbergs’ attorney “essentially conceded their party ties in his trial summation.” I refer him to the following passage from Emanuel Bloch’s summation to the jury on behalf of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg: “If you want to convict these defendants because you think they are Communists and you don’t like Communism and you don’t like any member of the Communist party, then I can sit down now and there is no further use in my talking.” My interpretation of Bloch’s remarks reflects my sense of the jury’s likely interpretation of these remarks, as well as my sense of how Bloch himself intended his words to be understood.
- As for the question of “loyalty oaths,” Julius Rosenberg was dismissed from the Signal Corps in 1945 on grounds that he had lied in a statement he signed upon entering the Corps denying present or past Communist party membership. The United States government maintained Rosenberg had, in fact, belonged to the Communist party (as a member of Branch 16B of the party’s Industrial Division, and later as a member of the Eastern Club of the First Assembly District). At the time of his dismissal from the Signal Corps, Rosenberg vigorously denied these charges. He presented another signed declaration, attested to under oath, in which he asserted that he had never been a Communist party member or a “Communist sympathizer.” Ethel Rosenberg helped her husband prepare and type this reinstatement appeal. Both Rosenbergs invoked the privilege against self-incrimination when asked during their trial if the 1945 declaration was true. Thus my comments on their initial vulnerability.
Aside from these issues, there is little in Mr. Katz’s letter, or in the letters from the Rosenberg family and Muriel Goldring, that requires a response from me. Insofar as I labeled the Smith Act and the subsequent McCarthy-period congressional inquiries “. . . an abrogation of fundamental constitutional rights,” it is difficult to fathom how Mr. Katz, or, for that matter, anyone with elementary reading-comprehension skills, could conclude that I accept “. . . the basic premises of McCarthyism.” I remain, likewise, unenlightened as to why the Rosenberg family feels that my article contains “. . . all the evils of that ‘ism.’” My guess is that the article simply provided an occasion for defenders of the Rosenbergs to rehearse their version of the history of that case—despite the fact that the validity of the verdict is not in any way an issue addressed in the article. A critique of Communist conduct like the one I offered would need to be willfully misread to give rise to the inference that it endorses McCarthy and his allies. Similarly, the fact that I identified hypocrisy and dishonesty as having informed the behavior of most Communists, fellow travelers, and apologists during the period in question does not mean that I regard Communists as “non-people, inhuman . . . ,” notwithstanding Mr. Katz’s charges.
The purpose of such accusations, in my view, is to promote a climate in which negative commentary on the conduct of American Communists is taboo. Mr. Katz’s letter is testimony to the fact that it remains impossible simply to identify a Communist as such, and to point out what this circumstance implies, without running the risk of being slandered—an ironic legacy of the McCarthy period.
A final note regarding Mr. Katz: anyone who deems it appropriate to term a magazine article—any article—a “new crime against humanity” has probably simply lost all control of an original propensity toward wild hyperbole. This may explain the rest of his letter. Alternatively, it may be supposed that one given to such a view of what constitutes a crime against humanity has had the benefit of an unusually tranquil and sheltered existence.