To the Editor:
The two main points of Allen Weinstein’s article [“Agit-Prop & the Rosenbergs,” July] are that the Rosenbergs were guilty and that Freed’s play is untruthful about this, and that all the characterizations in the play are oversimplified and tendentious. In my one-paragraph review (New York, May 18), I mentioned the play’s “jerky structuring, boggling lacunae, palpable special pleading, less than smooth production.” This means, clearly, that I was not impressed either by its truthfulness or by its subtlety. But I did feel that it had a certain dramatic power—as does Richard III, a finer play by far but likewise historically dishonest and politically partisan—and such power counts for something in the theater. But Mr. Weinstein insists on judging the play as reportage or a historiographic document, which it clearly isn’t, and which even the better plays by Hochhuth and Weiss he seems to admire are not.
How can he object to my point that even if the Rosenbergs were guilty, “the trial was a monstrous farce,” when he himself applauds Alexander Bickel’s description of it as “a ghastly and shameful episode,” and adds that the death sentence was “an awful and unwarranted act”? He next objects to my saying that the play conveys what it feels like to live under “a hysterical government and an intellectually and morally inadequate President.” He does not explain, though, just what he objects to. If he means that the play does not convey such a mood and atmosphere, let him say so; but since his entire discussion is limited to a literal-minded weighing of facts, mood and atmosphere are obviously not his concern. Or does he mean to say that Nixon & Co. are not hysterical, not variously inadequate? If so, I’d like to see him argue that one. It would have nothing to do with theater criticism, but then, neither has his article.
Finally, he seems to object to my remark that trial by jury is faulty. But his only feeble rejoinder is that “jury trials are meant to be decided on points of evidence and not on moral testaments.” I agree that that is what they are “meant to be”; but if Mr. Weinstein claims that in a time of panic induced by the Korean War and Joe McCarthy they actually are, I am afraid I must differ.
New York City
To the Editor:
Allen Weinstein maintains that there is “a growing crisis in confidence among many leading cultural spokesmen in the United States,” and seeks evidence of this “crisis” in the critical reception accorded Inquest, Donald Freed’s play about Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Mr. Weinstein may conceivably have a legitimate point to make, but he has no right to attempt to strengthen his case by attributing to me opinions I have not expressed and do not hold.
Mr. Weinstein writes: “That jury trials are meant to be decided on points of evidence and not on moral testaments, remains unimportant to these critics, as one can see from Julius Novick’s review of the play in the Village Voice.” Then he quotes from my review as follows:
I conceded at the beginning of this review that for all I knew, even after seeing the play (I have done no reading on the subject), the Rosenbergs might just conceivably be guilty, but I have been writing ever since of my love for them, or at least for their stage-images, or for myself-in-them. I have called the Rosenbergs (I was referring specifically to the stage-Rosenbergs, but I meant the real ones too) [sic]—I have called the Rosenbergs “decent, simple, and lovable people”; would I still say this even if they turned out to be guilty? Yes, I think so, although in that case, inside their simplicity would be suspended a deep and sad and dishonorable complexity. [The sic is Mr. Weinstein's.]
If Mr. Weinstein can really “see” what he says “one can see” from this passage or from anything else in my review, then he can probably “see” flying saucers, and Reds under beds, as well.
Mr. Weinstein continues: “Perhaps the best way to appreciate the extraordinary meaning of Mr. Novick’s moral argument would be to substitute the word ‘Eichmann’ for ‘the Rosenbergs,’ change the tenses, and read the quotation back for sound.” This is a peculiar sort of appreciation. Where in God’s name does Mr. Weinstein get Eichmann from? I was writing quite specifically about the Rosenbergs; the Eichmann case is not remotely a parallel instance. Mr. Weinstein’s little substitution puts me in mind of the rabbi in my old synagogue, who used to invoke “Dachau!” every year on Yom Kippur in the course of raising money for the UJA, because he was confident that any mention of the Nazis would cause his congregation to salivate automatically.
Needing, for the purposes of his argument, some critics willing “to accept radical myths as unvarnished fact,” Mr. Weinstein seeks to misrepresent me as one such. But in my review I was trying to get beyond the questions of whether or not the Rosenbergs “did it,” and what the jury in the case ought to have done. “To me at least,” I wrote, “this is not just a play about two people named Rosenberg, but about that whole vaguely defined but vividly remembered phenomenon that is now called the Old Left.” The Old Left was deeply compromised, as I took pains to point out, by its dishonorable complicity with Stalinism, but it was punished by base-minded men with a severity that far exceeded its guilt, and I find it pathetically lovable for its well-intentioned, doomed naiveté. For all of this, the Rosenbergs—in Mr. Freed’s play as in life—stand, for me, as affectingly human symbols. This set of opinions and feelings scarcely constitutes a “radical myth.”
I agree with Mr. Weinstein that the radical analysis of recent and current history is often dangerously simplistic; but Mr. Weinstein himself, in his eagerness to ferret out and pillory “revisionists,” is guilty of the same sort of simple-mindedness and failure to make distinctions for which he attacks the radicals. Mr. Weinstein admits that the execution of the Rosenbergs was “an awful and unwarranted act”; he’d better watch out, or some super-Weinstein will be calling him a Comsymp.
New York City
To the Editor:
I was appalled at the inaccuracy and misrepresentation in Allen Weinstein’s article. Mr. Weinstein repeatedly refers to the case as a lesson of the 20th century and chastises Freed for “not paying any respect to the complex and partly disguised personalities of his two protagonists.” So what? I agree that the characterization of Julius and Ethel lacked depth. Nevertheless, the horror of the Rosenberg affair should be reenacted. Freed’s play was not a character study of two passionate Communists, nor of the motives which drive people to Communism. Freed’s play was about a fear-ridden society and the tragic results to individuals when this fear becomes too great. . . .
New York City
To the Editor:
. . . Mr. Weinstein admits that “the prosecution submitted not a single purloined document or other actual proof that espionage had been committed apart from the sworn statements of its three confessed conspirators.” These witnesses, in early accounts to their own attorneys, told stories which differed significantly from their later testimony at the trial. Mr. Weinstein admits that “by comparing the pretrial statements with the trial testimony of the three government witnesses, two already under indictment for capital crimes and the third threatened with indictment, even those persuaded of the Rosenbergs’ guilt might question the complete credibility of the witnesses.” May I ask Mr. Weinstein: without documentary evidence and without completely credible witnesses, what basis is left for conviction on such a charge? . . .
Seventeen years after their execution the Rosenbergs emerge from the play Inquest, from the various books, and, above all, from the historical record, as innocent.
Brooklyn, New York
To the Editor:
. . . How can one excuse Allen Weinstein’s remarks in 1970, when the lies of Harry Gold and the Greenglasses have been established beyond dispute? Mr. Weinstein must know that the convictions rested on the Greenglasses’ testimony . . . and he even refers to the new evidence, which thoroughly discredits their testimony: Greenglass’s handwritten statement to his lawyer; his wife’s characterization of Greenglass to the lawyers; the discovered console table; the affidavit of his brother, Bernard Greenglass, concerning David’s theft of uranium from Los Alamos; the affidavits of top atomic scientists.
Those who did not believe Greenglass—and this group also included Albert Einstein and Harold C. Urey, even before the discovery of the new evidence—authors William Reuben, John Wexley, Walter and Miriam Schneir, and Donald Freed, are described by Mr. Weinstein as “revisionists.” They are then faulted for not providing reasonable explanations of how Greenglass obtained $3,900 in his possession, if not, as alleged, from the Rosenbergs. Mr. Weinstein adds: “Similarly, who if not Harry Gold actually gave the Greenglasses the $400 which Ruth deposited in an Albuquerque bank in June 1945 one day after Gold allegedly gave them the money in exchange for atomic information?” . . . Many “revisionists” believe that Greenglass obtained this money from his thefts and black marketing in Los Alamos. But even without this highly plausible explanation, what bearing does the money have on the guilt or innocence of the Rosenbergs? If Greenglass had accused Allen Weinstein instead of the Rosenbergs, would lack of knowledge concerning Greenglass’s finances establish Weinstein’s guilt?
Mr. Weinstein “proves” that the playwright lacks sincerity because he failed to portray the Rosenbergs as “dedicated Communists.” He says: “Not only does this go un-mentioned, but the suggestion is made that the pair had been casually ‘progressive’ people, perhaps a bit to the Left of FDR.” This is totally untrue. The play showed the Rosenbergs exactly as the trial transcript did, “pleading the Fifth” where questions of Communist affiliations were involved, but clearly expressing themselves as friends of the Soviet Union, far more than just casually “progressive”. . . .
Brooklyn, New York
To the Editor:
. . . Allen Weinstein makes much of Donald Freed’s omission of the Communist affiliations of the Rosenbergs, but he does not refer to the more basic omission of what happened to Morton Sobell; the story of Sobell glaringly exposes the shocking injustices and violations which permeated the case from the beginning. To Mr. Weinstein, Freed was too harsh in attacking the prosecution and trial judge; to history, he will appear too lenient.
Morton Sobell was convicted . . . on the uncorroborated testimony of one man, Max Elitcher, a confessed perjurer, whose testimony was purchased by special assistant prosecutor Roy Cohn; Colin promised Elitcher immunity from prosecution for his own crimes if he testified. The law journals have pointed out that even if every word of Elitcher’s testimony were true, it still would not provide sufficient evidence to prove Sobell guilty of the crime he was charged with in the indictment. . . .
Sobell was injected into the trial, like Elitcher, to provide another witness against the Rosenbergs. When he refused to follow Elitcher’s example and purchase his own freedom by falsely implicating the Rosenbergs, Judge Kaufman imposed the maximum prison sentence permitted by law—thirty years. The judge was rebuked for this sentence by every law journal which studied the case. . . .
If Allen Weinstein is genuinely opposed to the distortion of truth, instead of attacking playwrights like Freed, let him encourage them by saying, “Right on! . . . on to the case of Morton Sobell.” It may be too late for the Rosenbergs, but it is not too late for a full pardon for Sobell.
Brooklyn, New York
To the Editor:
. . . In jurisprudence there are five degrees of proof:
- proof beyond reasonable doubt;
- a preponderance of the evidence in favor, that is, more evidence for the fact than for the contrary;
- a standoff;
- a preponderance of evidence against;
- disproof beyond reasonable doubt. . . .
A study of all the evidence in the Rosenberg case, examined dispassionately and sufficiently after the fact for emotions to fade as a factor in judgment, shows that it fits into the fourth category: while the evidence is insufficient to prove the defendants innocent beyond reasonable doubt, the preponderance of the evidence is against their guilt. At this late date, twenty years after the event, why should COMMENTARY wish to revive the question in the form of a presentation of the facts slanted so as to support the finding of guilt against the probably-innocent Rosenbergs? . . .
Allen Weinstein writes:
My critics fall into several overlapping categories: those who defend Inquest, those who defend the Rosenbergs, and one who defends their co-defendant, Morton Sobell.
Muriel Goldring chides me for not proclaiming the Rosenbergs innocent, after having accepted some aspects of the revisionist argument. On what basis might their conviction be justified, she asks, if the Greenglasses and Harry Gold were not “completely credible witnesses”? I would refer her to Herbert Harvey’s letter, in which he outlines five degrees of legal proof. On the basis of available evidence, I consider the second degree (no pun intended) appropriate to the manner in which most historians today view the Rosenberg case: “a preponderance of the evidence in favor [of guilt], that is, more evidence for the fact than for the contrary.” Walter and Miriam Schneir, the leading revisionist writers on the case, have found it easier to throw into question portions of the Greenglass and Gold testimony than to discard its essential credibility.
As for my general views on the problem of an alleged government “frameup,” they were discussed in my article and follow those expressed in Alexander Bickel’s review of the Schneirs’ book (COMMENTARY, January 1966). Although the revisionists have undermined portions of the government’s case, they have yet to shake its central premise: that the Rosenbergs conspired to commit some form of espionage connected with the Los Alamos duties of their relative, David Greenglass.
Leah Feller is correct. I should have discussed Morton Sobell’s involvement in the case, if only to express my own belief that Sobell was probably innocent. This “basic omission,” however, was also Donald Freed’s, since Sobell does not appear as a major character in Inquest. On the basis of evidence offered at the trial, primarily unsubstantiated testimony by one government witness, Sobell should have been freed. It is shameful that the government refused him parole during his long imprisonment and that it continues to deny him a full pardon. On the other hand, I question whether Sobell was “injected into the trial like Elitcher [the figure who testified against Sobell], to provide another witness against the Rosenbergs,” especially since Sobell’s “vacation” trip to Mexico at the time he was being sought for FBI questioning had alerted the government to his uncooperative attitude.
Readers must judge for themselves the exact meaning of those passages from my article quoted by Julius Novick. I am puzzled that my use of the Eichmann analogy should have been misconstrued, especially by a man of such rare critical insight: who else could have captured in print the extraordinary spectacle of an entire synagogue on Yom Kippur “salivating automatically” at the mention of Dachau? But let me try once more to explain my meaning: Most human beings seem “decent, simple, and lovable” in the eyes of those closest to them. Eichmann, by common account, was a good family man. He also happened to be a mass murderer. One does not preclude the other, any more than character ever determines public behavior. Would Mr. Novick, then, call a stage-Eichmann a “decent, simple, and lovable” human being if he had witnessed a play that portrayed him as both a Nazi war criminal and a devoted family man? Would he say then of Eichmann what he observed of the Rosenbergs: “Would I still say this even if they turned out to be guilty? Yes, I think so, although in that case, inside their simplicity would be suspended a deep and sad and dishonorable complexity.” I will acknowledge Mr. Novick’s need for a double moral standard on the matter, if he in turn will attempt candidly to answer the real question raised in my review: “Do these fairly common personality traits acquit [the Rosenbergs] of the charge of espionage?”
Mr. Novick goes on to say that his review actually made a more complex moral argument concerning the “Old Left,” for which the Rosenbergs stood as “human symbols.” Once more, the reader must untangle for himself the contradictory hyperbole of Mr. Novick’s analysis. He calls the Old Left “deeply compromised” by its “dishonorable complicity with Stalinism,” but, at the same time, “pathetically lovable for its well-intentioned, doomed naiveté,” and, in the end, “punished by base-minded men.” I doubt that those who suffered during the McCarthy period for their earlier radicalism deserve such a Manichean requiem. On another of his complaints, the Village Voice critic might wish to reread his entire review, if only to refresh himself on those opinions he claims not to have expressed or held. Consider, for example, the following ones:
I came away with feelings of deep affection and respect for the Rosenbergs and for the kind of Americans they were . . . now I am tempted to think, “How could anyone not be sympathetic to the Rosenbergs?” . . . Nothing that I have seen for many months has moved me so much. . . . Most of the acting is straightforward and fine; there are no stereotypes and no caricatures. . . . For me, Inquest was a requiem for the days when I was a boy licking envelopes for Vito Marcantonio.
John Simon does not share Julius Novick’s fluttery enthusiasm for Inquest. Mr. Simon catches me out on two facts: first, that his review did point out the play’s aesthetic shortcomings; and second, that I am not a drama critic while he is. Mr. Simon’s other observations fail to impress me. For one thing, he seriously misquotes Alexander Bickel, who stated explicitly that the Rosenbergs’ execution, not their trial, “was a monstrous farce.” Mr. Simon also seems slightly befuddled about the precise issue posed in revisionist accounts of the Rosenberg case, which is not the “fairness” of the trial itself but the purportedly doctored evidence and perjured witnesses used to secure the conviction. Even the Rosenbergs’ chief counsel acknowledged at its close the trial’s fairness. What was at issue was the veracity of particular government witnesses and the sentence imposed by a particular judge, not the integrity of American law “in a time of panic.” Obviously the public hysteria which accompanied the Korean War and the disclosure that Russia possessed the atomic bomb influenced—probably even more than Senator Joe McCarthy’s distant malevolence—Judge Kaufman’s decision to impose the death sentence. That jurist’s remarks upon sentencing the Rosenbergs stand out even today as perverse testimony to the degree to which ordinary political beliefs can harden, under the proper circumstances, into paranoid suspicions. The Rosenbergs were neither Kaufman’s moral monsters nor Freed’s spotless saints.
But if I am not a drama critic, neither is Simon a historian. The “mood and atmosphere” of his letter make it difficult to determine whether he is equating, in some manner, today’s America and its President with the “hysterical government” and the “intellectually and morally inadequate President” we had at the time of the Rosenberg case. If so, I would remind him that Harry Truman occupied the White House for most of those proceedings, and whatever his failings, few historians, if any, would apply to him any such label. As for “Nixon & Co.,” despite their many anti-Communist excesses during those years, they (or at least Mr. Nixon) had nothing to do with the Rosenberg case itself.
Such maladroit and imprecise judgments do not always characterize Mr. Simon’s criticism, but having unfurled a “devil theory” of recent American life when reviewing Inquest, he apparently intends to continue saluting it. He asks whether I “mean to say that Nixon & Co. are not hysterical, not variously inadequate?” The “& Co.” epitomizes Mr. Simon’s own degree of hysteria as a critic. Does “& Co.” include Agnew or Rogers, Mitchell or Moynihan, Laird or Hickel, perhaps even David Eisenhower? Or does he mean all of them? Mr. Simon “& Co.” might wish to reflect at some point on the inadequacies of a frenetic intellectual community confronted with the necessity for making careful distinctions, even “in a time of panic”: the aesthetic distinction, for example, between Richard III and a work like Inquest.
Both plays, he tells us, possess “a certain dramatic power,” although the former was “a finer play by far.” What “certain dramatic power” does Mr. Simon have in mind that links the brooding eloquence of Shakespeare’s Gloucester with the “matineeidolish mugging” (Simon’s phrase) of Freed’s villains? This may be mere quibbling, however, since dramatic taste is keenly personal and none more so than Mr. Simon’s. Therefore, I willingly concede his restrained enthusiasm for Inquest—“Perjury, perjury, in the high’st degree”—if, in return, he will sanction my own preference for the Elizabethan mode of agit-prop:
Shine out, fair sun, till I
have bought a glass,
That I may see my shadow as
Aaron Katz’s claim that “in 1970 . . . the lies of Harry Gold and the Greenglasses have been established beyond dispute” seems a bit premature. For one thing, the stolen memoranda from O. John Rogge’s office do not “discredit” Greenglass’s testimony that Julius Rosenberg recruited him for espionage; quite the contrary. For another, the scientists’ statements to which Mr. Katz refers do not deal with Greenglass’s confessed activities as a spy, only with his faulty sense of the atomic-bomb mechanism. Bernard Greenglass’s affidavit that his brother David had stolen “a sample” of uranium from Los Alamos is a rather curious document. The Rosenbergs’ lawyers produced this convenient testament on May 31, 1953, as they fought a last-minute legal battle to stay the couple’s execution, which occurred on June 19. Greenglass’s memo itself goes on to state that both his brother David and his sister-in-law, Ruth Greenglass, had said that David later threw the uranium sample into the East River. The Schneirs (and Mr. Katz) conclude from this belated affidavit—supported only by the doomed couple’s own statements—that Greenglass actually accumulated the $400 and $3900 in question through “thefts and black marketing in [war-time] Los Alamos.” That no evidence has yet been uncovered—“documentary” or otherwise—to substantiate this assertion appears a matter of no concern to the revisionists.
The term “revisionist” itself disturbs Mr. Katz. He should be assured that historians do not use it as a term of reproach, nor did I intend it in that sense. It refers generally to newer scholarship that challenges commonly held historical interpretations. I have written “revisionist” history myself, a recent example of which is my reassessment of the Alger Hiss case, forthcoming in the American Scholar.
At times Mr. Katz employs the same type of ad hominem arguments as Julius Novick. If Greenglass had accused me, instead of the Rosenbergs, he says, lack of knowledge alone of Greenglass’s finances would not have established my guilt. Neither, however, did it establish the Rosenbergs’ guilt. Once again, the reader might refer to my article and to Alexander Bickel’s review of the Schneirs’ book for further discussion of this point.
Whether Donald Freed did or did not disguise the Rosenbergs’ Communist affiliations is a question that only those familiar with the play can judge. At one point, “reconstructing” a conversation between the defendants and their lawyer, Emmanuel Bloch, on their reasons for “pleading the Fifth,” the dramatist implied strongly that the couple had no such affiliations to hide. He does show them as “friends of the Soviet Union,” but then, how could he not? Most New Dealers “a bit to the Left of FDR” held such sympathies openly during the 1933-45 period. Freed, on the other hand, used almost none of the significant trial testimony in which Julius Rosenberg refused to say whether he had ever been a member of the Communist party, a charge that cost him his Signal Corps job in 1945. Nor did he portray Rosenberg, again during the trial, refusing to answer the prosecutor’s many questions concerning prior involvement in the Young Communist League or the Communist party. To clarify the matter, I was not trying to “red-bait” the Rosenbergs at this late date. I was simply wondering why Freed chose not to dramatize those very aspects of his protagonists’ lives which made them appear, whether guilty or innocent, such convenient victims in an era of anti-Communist hysteria. The point is not legal, therefore, but dramatic. The playwright chose to obscure the radical associations that had shaped the activities of his main characters and which, if the Schneirs are correct, had been their only “crime.”
Finally, I must thank Herbert Harvey for his comments on juridical “proof,” although I disagree with his conclusion for reasons already rehearsed sufficiently. As for Billie Lederman’s complaint, I would remind her that it was Freed, not I, who viewed the Rosenberg case “as a lesson of the 20th century.” Who could quarrel with the importance of a skillful drama on the Rosenbergs? Mine was only with the unskillful melodrama that I reviewed.
A recent statement by Inquest’s producers would disappoint most of my critics. Messrs. Guber and Gross insisted somewhat disingenuously in a letter to the Sunday Times Magazine that they were merely “doing a play about injustice” and that “proving the innocence of the Rosenbergs was not our aim.” Rather, the Rosenbergs “were chosen as symbolic people.” For any future playwright concerned with doing more than exploiting the Rosenbergs “as symbolic people” to make a political point, their actual lives remain, as I said in my article, “a possible paradigm for understanding how the accidents of history reshape human purpose and personality in our time.” Such a dramatist might wish to consult not only the Schneirs’ book, which is essentially a legal brief for the defense, but also more balanced accounts of the case like Jonathan Root’s The Betrayed. This neglected study, published in 1963, remains the best single treatment of the cultural “mood and atmosphere” within which the Rosenbergs pursued their lives. I might be tempted to suggest a possible scenario for such a play myself, but respect for the undoubtedly waning patience of COMMENTARY’s readers reminds me that, for the moment, enough has been said about the Rosenberg case.