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A Fellow Traveling | The Nation

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A Fellow Traveling

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In Commies, predictably, Radosh hails the release of the Venona files as conclusive proof that Julius Rosenberg committed espionage; "all doubts," Radosh writes, "have been laid to rest." But not everyone is convinced, and besides, Radosh is strangely mute about whether Ethel should be regarded as guilty; far too often he writes about "the Rosenbergs," lumping husband and wife together as co-conspirators, whereas many of us feel that although Ethel may well have had knowledge of her husband's work, any evidence that she directly shared in it is weak; that she may in fact have been framed by the US government; and that the depth of her involvement, in any case, hardly deserved the death penalty.

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Martin Duberman
Martin Duberman, Distinguished Professor of History at CUNY, is the author of more than twenty books. His biography...

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As to Julius, the Venona evidence has changed minds on the left. Navasky, for example, told me that he has shifted "from agnosticism to the belief that Julius did something." And contrary to Radosh's portrayal of him as Julius's rigid defender, Foner (before the release of the Venona files) never claimed that Julius was innocent, only that the case against him had not been proved. Since Venona, Foner's opinion has, he told me, "to some extent changed," but only toward accepting the possibility that Julius (not Ethel) may have engaged in some sort of low-level espionage. Walter and Miriam Schneir, writing in these pages, noted that although the account would be "painful news for many people," as it was for them, Venona had convinced them that while there was no evidence against Ethel, and key elements of the atomic spying charge were not confirmed, "Julius Rosenberg was the head of a spy ring gathering and passing nonatomic defense information."

Yet we can't even be sure of the nature of that information: We still don't know what portion of the total number of Venona documents transmitted to the Soviets by US espionage agents has in fact been released. Nor do we know how or why particular code names in the documents have been linked to given people like Julius Rosenberg. Radosh and others feel entitled to declare that the Venona material has "proved conclusively" Julius's guilt, but they can't tell us precisely what sort of "secrets" Julius was guilty of passing to the Soviets.

In addition, if we put aside nationalistic fervor, we might dare raise a broad question that Radosh, the zealous patriot, refuses to go near: Why do we seem unable to feel some compassion and extend some understanding toward those who chose, often at enormous personal sacrifice, to give primary allegiance to a country that they believed (however mistakenly, we might feel today) stood, alone among the great nations in the 1930s and '40s, for antiracist, anticolonialist principles (gleeful crowds in the American South were still enjoying the community spectacle of a burnt, lynched black body)?

The principles, we now know, were mostly window dressing in the Soviet Union; beyond the windows stood the most ghastly horrors. But the point remains: If someone managed to produce a statistical study of those Americans who became espionage agents in the 1930s and '40s, my guess is that the motivation of the larger portion by far would turn out to have been not material considerations but humanitarian ones. (Awright, Ron, fire off that outraged Letter to the Editor, in which, once again, you applaud Sidney Hook's dictum that despite its "failings, drawbacks and limitations, the defense and survival of the West was [and must remain] the first priority....")

Toward the end of Commies, Radosh concludes that "the Left was wrong not just about the Rosenberg Case, but about most everything else...the entire socialist project was wrong." He doesn't offer his definition of socialism, but I have always been drawn to the one that stresses ends, not means: "The highest social priority must go to the needs of the least fortunate."

And that can be "wrong," it seems to me, only if, like Radosh, you believe our country is under attack from within, which at the present moment he defines as attack from "radical feminism, ultra-environmentalism, pro-Arabism, political correctness [and] the new anarchism"--meaning the young protesters "who trash Starbucks and picket the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund."

And what about poverty, healthcare, racism and the like? Well, what we do, it seems, is simply change our vocabularies. Here is how Radosh works the trick: "Walking our son, Michael, to public school we were often accosted by bums--or the unfortunate homeless, as some of my friends called them." If "unfortunates" become "bums," is it any wonder that all Commies become spies?

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