A Fellow Traveling
In Commies, Radosh claims that when The Rosenberg File was published in 1983, he "never received an iota of public support from the democratic socialist intellectuals." (But, weirdly, he then goes on to mention favorable treatment in print by Nation columnist Katha Pollitt, historian Maurice Isserman and James Weinstein--hardly chopped liver in democratic socialist circles.) In this regard, Radosh singles out for special attack the historian Eric Foner and The Nation's Victor Navasky.
Foner's paramount sin seems to have been his ongoing insistence (one that I share) that the Communist Party USA was not simply, or even primarily, a recruitment agency for spies but rather contained a broad spectrum of idealistic left-wingers who joined the party for reasons that had nothing to do with espionage. Radosh's anger at Navasky focuses on his 1983 review of The Rosenberg File in The Nation, which, according to Radosh, attacked the book in "the crudest of political terms."
To evaluate Radosh's claims, I not only read Navasky's review but asked both him and Foner to respond to Radosh's complaints against them in Commies. I asked them, too, whether the publication two years ago of Venona: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America, by John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr, had to any degree changed their minds about the culpability of the Rosenbergs and, more generally, about the amount of espionage engaged in by members of the CPUSA. (Venona analyzes the nearly 3,000 pages of deciphered cables between Moscow and its US agents--some 350 people, in the authors' estimate.) When Venona appeared, it was widely hailed in the mainstream press as having conclusively demonstrated that the CPUSA was indeed a significant "fifth column" working against our country's interests, with the added implication that the anti-Communist crusade undertaken by McCarthy and others was therefore justified.
First, the matter of Navasky's 1983 review of The Rosenberg File. I found it subtle and evenhanded--not by any fair-minded stretch a "crude" political attack. Time and again, in fact, Navasky actually gives Radosh and Milton the benefit of the doubt in weighing their claims against those of Walter and Miriam Schneir's protestations of Rosenberg innocence in Invitation to an Inquest. Navasky even cautions the reader, and more than once, that his own political views may be affecting his evaluation of the evidence. But the review does target what I believe is Radosh and Milton's central weakness as historians: They have a low tolerance for ambiguity. They prefer to see--and proclaim--absolute truth where others would be more likely to see uncertainties. This shows up most clearly in their penchant for accepting the reports of FBI agents at face value.
As someone who has worked with FBI files for a biography of Paul Robeson, and also in researching the early years of the gay movement, I can testify to the frequent inaccuracy of agents' reports, and their sometimes laughable distortions (which don't make them any less dangerous). In regard to the gay movement, I've read FBI reports that defined transvestites as "a militant group of women," referred to the early 1970s countercultural university of "Alternate U" as "Ultimate You" and mislabeled the gay Marxist study group Red Butterfly as prototypically anarchist (they "do not recognize authority of any kind").
As regards Robeson, FBI headquarters learned from its various agents, along with much else, that Robeson had taken out formal membership in the Communist Party (which he never did); that he and his brother Ben "do not get along" (it was Robeson's wife, Eslanda, who didn't get along with his brother); that the union members who volunteered to form a cordon around Robeson during his dangerous Peekskill concert, and who held various political allegiances, were all "Communists endeavoring to recruit delegations." One FBI agent even managed, during the run of Othello on Broadway--in which Robeson co-starred with Uta Hagen and Joe (José) Ferrer--to report that he hadn't been able to identify the "Joe" mentioned in a phone log, though he thought "Joe" might "possibly [be] associated with Paul Robeson's show."
None of which is to say that the FBI didn't often get things right, only that its agents were and are human, with blind spots, prejudices, areas of ignorance and ambitions to make a mark or please a boss. Too often Radosh and Milton relied in The Rosenberg File on a single agent's report, uncorroborated by independent evidence, treating it as the full story, unblemished and unbiased.