Commentary Magazine


Historical Memory and the Rosenbergs

The belated announcement of the death of David Greenglass has renewed discussion of the notorious spy case in which he played a principal role. Greenglass was, of course, the brother of Ethel Rosenberg and it was his testimony that led in no small measure to the conviction and ultimately the execution of his sister and her husband Julius on charges of nuclear espionage against the United States on behalf of the Soviet Union. But even 61 years after their deaths and decades after even almost all of those who wrongly asserted their innocence have conceded that they were spies, Greenglass and not the masterminds of the Communist spy ring remains the villain of the story as far as most of the chattering classes are concerned. That was the upshot of Greenglass’s obituary in today’s New York Times. Though correcting the record on this point may seem a futile exercise, the willingness of liberals to carry on with the pretense that Greenglass’s evidence was somehow worse than the Rosenberg’s’ treason remains insufferable.

Greenglass apparently died in July at 92 while living under an assumed name in a nursing home. But, as the Times points out, his willingness to cut a deal with prosecutors that enabled his wife to avoid incarceration in exchange for evidence about his sister and her husband, has become a symbol of family betrayal. But as historian Ron Radosh writes in his column in the New York Sun, the effort to treat Greenglass as beyond the pale stems from the lingering desire to diminish the guilt of the Rosenbergs if no longer to exonerate them.

The Times obituary did not recycle the old canards about the Rosenbergs’ innocence that were always transparent fictions but which were conclusively debunked by the publication of Soviet records after the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the evil empire the spies served. But its main conceit was to harp on Greenglass’ post-trial statement that he was unsure whether it was his sister or his wife Ruth, another dedicated Communist, who typed the document sent to the Soviets containing the data he had stolen from the U.S. nuclear research facility at Los Alamos, New Mexico. This was treated in the piece as somehow evidence that Ethel, if not Julius, was actually innocent of espionage. Citing the ground breaking work of historian Ron Radosh, co-author along with Joyce Milton of the seminal The Rosenberg File, the Times attempts to bolster this bogus point as well as the claim that the material Greenglass and other members of the ring passed to Moscow was worthless.

But as Radosh writes today, these assumptions are completely false. Ethel Rosenberg was an integral member of the Soviet espionage operation who helped recruit her brother and sister-in-law to join her husband’s spy ring. Nor are there any grounds for assuming that the information they passed to Stalin’s henchmen was worthless. Greenglass’s description of the U.S. uranium bomb was highly useful to the Russians. So was the data about the lens mold of the bomb described at the Rosenberg trial and other material such as a detonator and a proximity fuse. The opprobrium directed at the Rosenbergs during their trial may have been in part a product of Cold War hysteria but there is no question of the depth of their betrayal and the damage they did to their country.

At the heart of all of these attempts to mitigate the justified anger of the American people at persons who spied for the Soviets is the lingering leftist illusion that what they did was a product of idealism. Though faith in the “socialist motherland” has long since faded, its vestigial elements still act to rationalize the actions of American communists who are thought to have been merely mistaken in their loyalties rather than having chosen to align themselves with evil against the cause of freedom. This attitude of tolerance toward communism is one that his still based not only on myths such as that of the Rosenberg’s innocence but also on the belief that those who backed Moscow’s cause did not irretrievably compromise themselves.

But even if this is among the last rounds to be fired in an old argument, these lies should still be refuted.

As Radosh writes, the Rosenbergs didn’t die because of McCarthyite intolerance or judicial misconduct but because they were, unlike Greenglass, dedicated communists who refused to cop a plea or even admit a modicum of guilt. They choose death so that they could be martyrs for the cause of the world’s greatest anti-Semitic power at the time and the homicidal maniac who ruled it. Doing so served Stalin’s cause and distracted the world from the anti-Semitic purge trials going on in Czechoslovakia even if it meant orphaning their children.

Greenglass may have been a villain to liberals like Woody Allen whose line about the spy in one of his movies closes the obits. But contrary to the conclusion of the Times, history shows that the real villains were all those, like the Rosenbergs, who served Stalin’s kingdom of death and oppression and those who sought to rationalize or lie about their crimes. To argue to the contrary is to dishonor the memory of the tens of millions murdered by the communists and the many brave people who resisted them during the course of a long and ultimately successful Cold War against evil.

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4 Responses to “Historical Memory and the Rosenbergs”

  1. JOHN BURKE says:

    What is astonishing is the fact that nearly 70 years after the Rosenberg spying and more than 20 years after the Soviet Union ceased to exist, obit writers and editors at the NYT (and other media) are still covering for the Rosenbergs and effectively making excuses for the American Communist movement and its slavish devotion to the needs of Stalin and the KGB.

    It is emblematic, I think, of the fact that the CPUSA and the millions who passed through the Party and its multitude of “fronts” have had a deep and enduring influence on American liberalism, contrary to the conventional wisdom that Communism with a capital C was never much of an internal threat in the US.


      Since there are precincts(primarily ivory tower or Upper East Side) still arguing about Alger Hiss’ complicity, and still impugning Whitaker Chambers’ integrity, I am not astonished. I wish I were. Truly.


    Jonathan Tobin is brilliant. He must know, saying that the Rosenbergs had “chosen to align themselves with evil against the cause of freedom,” is inane.

    Sure, those two were traitors, whether the secrets they betrayed were useful to the Russians or not. Certainly, they were stubborn, ideologues, fanatics. They and their crowd of hardened Stalinists had swallowed that cult of personality. They had shelved their critical faculty, ignored the evidence of the 1930s purge trials, the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact, the daily shipments of Russian oil and iron ore to the Reich even as the Luftwaffe blitzed London, the Katyn massacre, etc.

    That blindness however, did not make them knowing servants of a “kingdom of death and oppression.” They saw themselves as fighting for humanity. They did not act for financial rewards or for fame or because a gun was at their temple. They were naive and pig headed fools, but still, idealists, through and through. Nobody, not ISIS, not the Nazis, not the communists, not such as the Manson family, ever think of themselves as anything but brave and true and noble.

    Parenthetically, in 2005, in an auditorium at the New School, EL Doctrow acted as interlocutor of his friend and neighbor, Victor Navasky whose autobiography, A Matter of Opinion, had just been published. At one point in the conversation Doctrow mentioned, without beng refuted, that Navasky still held to the conviction that the Rosenbergs were innocent. (Victor knew when to keep quiet also as the éminence grise at the Columbia Journalism Review.)


      I am afraid you are offering the communists too much dignity in NOT knowing that they embraced a culture of destruction. Lenin may have been a misguided Jacobin(that’s the most generous characterization I can conjure). However, Stalin was married to brutality, consummated said marriage, and produced prodigious issue.

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