The Common Good
May-June 1997

I Read the News Today, Oh Boy . . .

by Danny Duncan Collum | May-June 1997

The mass audience message is on the front page: "Rosenberg spied."

In today’s magnificent free-world marketplace of ideas and information, there seems to be room for almost anything, even in the stodgy old mainstream media. Anything, that is, except things that might affect the Real World Order of wealth and power. Get too close to the top of the political food chain, and you can hear the gates slam shut all over Medialand.

For example, in the early 1950s, the American elite forged a new anti-communist consensus that would justify a permanent state of war for the next 40 years. This took work. After all, the adult population of the ’50s had witnessed the inhumanity of a collapsed capitalism in the 1930s. For many of that generation, various forms of socialism had appeared as attractive options. Then the members of that same generation waged a prolonged and heroic war against fascism, a war in which Communist Russia was our stalwart ally. In this work communists were primarily seen as domestic dissidents—extreme or eccentric, maybe—but part of the team nonetheless.

To make communism the devil of a new cosmology required some reprogramming of the popular mind. Among other things, communists became defined as foreign agents to be searched out and expunged. They were not dissidents, but spies and traitors. The 1953 execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg was the grand centerpiece of this reprogramming campaign.

The Rosenbergs, Communist Party members in New York City, were accused of passing to the Russians "atomic secrets" that played a key role in the construction of the first Soviet bomb in 1949. At the Rosenbergs’ treason trial, the judge held them personally responsible for the deaths of American soldiers then fighting communism in Korea.

Despite a worldwide outcry, the Rosenbergs were killed in the electric chair. For the next four decades, their names became symbolic of rival worldviews. To the marginalized and embattled Left, they were martyrs. But in the mainstream they were living proof of the central theses of the domestic Cold War—socialism equaled treason, and left-wing ideas were a de facto threat to national security.

In the 1960s and ’70s, when Cold War assumptions came under new scrutiny, researchers on the Left, including the grown-up Rosenberg children, revisited the case. For the past 25 years or so, a debate about the guilt of the Rosenbergs, and the guilt of our government, has simmered and sputtered and occasionally raged in journals such as The Nation, The New Republic, and The New York Review of Books. Now and then, with the publication of a book or the release of a new batch of declassified documents, the debate would surface in the mainstream dailies, where the Rosenbergs’ guilt would be calmly reaffirmed and the subject quietly closed. The assumption of the Rosenbergs’ guilt, and the justice of their execution, was so central to the underpinnings of the Cold War consensus that it could not be seriously questioned.

IN MARCH 1997, an 82-year-old retired Soviet spy, Alexander Feklisov, came to the United States to set the record straight on the Rosenberg case. He announced that he had been Julius Rosenberg’s contact with the KGB. During the 1940s, when the United States and the Soviet Union were allies, Rosenberg passed on to the Soviets information he gained as a civilian inspector with the Army Signal Corps. Feklisov also stated that Rosenberg did not give the Soviets atomic secrets of any value and that Ethel Rosenberg had no contact whatsoever with Soviet intelligence.

And from that data base the spinning began. Consider most particularly The Washington Post of Sunday, March 16, 1997, for a case study of how the truth can be obscured behind a haze of ideological convenience. On the front page that day appeared an article headlined, "Julius Rosenberg Spied, Russian Says." The front-page text included a dramatic account of Feklisov’s last meeting with Julius Rosenberg in 1946 and a brief summary of the Rosenberg case.

Now turn to the jump, on page A18, and see a new headline: "Julius Rosenberg an Atomic Spy? ‘Not Directly.’" And then, on A19, another continuing headline: "Ethel Rosenberg Probably ‘Aware’ of Husband’s Spying, Feklisov Says."

The body of this long piece, by Post staffer Michael Dobbs, gives a relatively nuanced account of the Rosenberg case and the longstanding controversy about it. The point of the story is actually to report a new historical consensus. Julius Rosenberg spied, but he didn’t commit the treason for which he died. Ethel Rosenberg never spied, and the execution of the Rosenbergs was a tragic injustice. As Dobbs reported, this version of the facts is now endorsed by the chief combatants of the ideological war, neo-conservative anti-Rosenberg crusader Ronald Radosh and pro-Rosenberg torchbearers Walter and Miriam Scheir.

But all that fine print is for insiders. The mass audience message is on the front page: "Rosenberg Spied."

"Yes," the inside text admits between the lines, "he wasn’t guilty of the crime for which he was executed. And, well, yes, we did have to kill his wife just for good measure. But he spied, you know. He really did."

And so the lid goes down on the coffin of the case.

DANNY DUNCAN COLLUM, a Sojourners contributing editor, teaches creative writing at Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore and is the author, most recently, of Black & White Together: The Search for Common Ground (Orbis Books, 1996).

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