Ron Radosh seems an easy target, so easy that a toy pistol (or automatic writing) should be weaponry enough–and no need to bother Nation readers, keen folks that we are, with a detailed analysis of the turncoat’s latest piece of folly.

It isn’t that simple. Radosh’s newest book can’t be as facilely dismissed as one might like. About half of Commies is yet another red-diaper memoir, some of it vivid and charming, most of it familiar and unexceptionable. The book’s second half, however, requires more attention. It contains some closely reasoned arguments, particularly about the Sandinista revolution and (yes, once again) the Rosenberg case. There are those on the left convinced that definitive judgments, one way or the other, on those issues have already been rendered.

But for those who remain less certain, Commies contains a critique that must be dealt with; Radosh’s arguments may not convince, but they do trouble the waters. And they give some credence to his long-standing claim that he is not a knee-jerk right-winger but rather an antitotalitarian liberal in the tradition of those dissenters (Sidney Hook, say) who refuse to pledge automatic allegiance to every left-wing hero (Castro, say, or Daniel Ortega) who comes down the pike.

As a way of assessing Radosh’s “antitotalitarian” credentials, I want to concentrate, as Radosh himself does, on the Sandinistas and the Rosenbergs. But first, it’s important to emphasize that Radosh is an exceedingly slippery writer. Avoiding the heavy-handed polemical style of, for instance, a David Horowitz, he opts instead in Commies for quietly dropping in a loaded adjective here, subtly highlighting (or ignoring) a given piece of evidence there. This can sometimes make Radosh’s biases difficult to detect, but they are decidedly present, and the reader needs to stay on steady alert.

This is worth spelling out in some detail. Radosh writes, for example, that Paul Robeson “squandered his early success by dedicating himself relentlessly to a vigorous defense of the Soviet Union and Joseph Stalin.” This is not untrue, but neither is it the full truth. By choosing to remain silent after Khrushchev’s 1956 revelations about Stalin’s crimes (he did not, publicly or privately, “vigorously defend” against Khrushchev’s indictment), Robeson did give his enemies ammunition, and to that degree can be said to have “squandered” his career. But he had already had his passport lifted and his concert bookings canceled. The conservative hound dogs, led by J. Edgar Hoover, had long since determined to bring Robeson down–not solely because he was pro-Soviet but even more, perhaps, because of his militant insistence on black rights, his socialism, his outspoken critique of American imperialism. In failing even to mention these other ingredients in the FBI’s and CIA’s hounding of Robeson, Radosh places the full responsibility for his decline on the man himself, letting the government’s colonialist policies and vicious racism entirely off the hook.

Another example is Radosh’s guileful treatment of the Black Panther leader Fred Hampton. “The local police,” he writes, “stormed the Black Panther’s home and killed him in the ensuing confusion.” This makes it sound as if the police and the Panthers were equally muddled–and thus equally responsible for Hampton’s death. But there are solid grounds for believing that the police deliberately set off on a mission of assassination and cold-bloodedly murdered Hampton in his bed.

It has to be said that the few African-Americans who appear in Commies are portrayed as either unlikable or downright villainous. Radosh refers at one point to the mugging of Conor Cruise O’Brien by “neighborhood black thugs.” (Is it possible to believe that they may have been desperate, frightened and remorseful–something more than, other than, “thugs”?) Radosh describes John Davis, the project director of the American Negro Reference Book and a man for whom he briefly worked, as a terse martinet, who quickly and unfairly fired him and had no redeeming qualities. And he characterizes educator and anthropologist Johnnetta Cole, egregiously, as someone who cast in her lot with the cause of “Communist totalitarianism.”

And that’s about it for the African-American cast of characters who appear in Commies (except for a cameo appearance by David Dinkins: “Once David Dinkins became mayor, the city grew markedly worse”). It seems odd (I’m trying to be charitable) that Radosh can, impressively, find generous things to say about any number of whites, including William Appleman Williams, Michael Harrington and Marshall Brickman, with whose politics he disagrees, whereas if there are any black people he felt as charitably toward, they haven’t made the final cut.

At this point, I suspect, readers of The Nation are impatiently wondering why I ever suggested in the first place that Commies should be taken seriously. Only, I meant, in part–the part that focuses on the civil war in El Salvador, the Sandinista uprising in Nicaragua and the Rosenberg case. It’s time to look more closely at each.

I am not a Latin America expert, and perhaps for that reason alone I pretty much believed what I read at the time in the left-wing press about events in El Salvador and Nicaragua. Namely, that José Napoleon Duarte was simply a tool of the right-wing military, and that the guerrilla assault on his rule was in the name of democracy and thus wholly justified. And additionally, that the successful Sandinista revolution against the brutal Anastasio Somoza in Nicaragua was an uncomplicated triumph for the good.

These views were common on the left, despite some dissenters, and to a considerable extent they still are. Radosh’s argument is that our enthusiasm was naïve and misplaced–and he includes himself among the naïfs. In the early 1980s Radosh still thought of himself as a person of the left, though he had begun to waver ideologically. Nonetheless, he organized a folk music benefit on behalf of the Revolutionary Democratic Front (the political body allied with the FMLN guerrillas), attended any number of street demonstrations on their behalf and insisted that the armed rebellion against Duarte was “an indigenous protest against a repressive government” that ruled in the name of landowning oligarchs and a vicious military.

That the military death squads were omnipresent and the landowning class determined to yield no ground is not in dispute, certainly not by Radosh. But much else, he argues, is. Duarte, he reminds us, was himself once a political exile from military dictatorship and saw himself, not inaccurately–as we should have understood–as a social democratic reformer who was out of sympathy with the Salvadoran right wing.

Radosh’s argument here is in part persuasive: One could even agree that Duarte had decent instincts and did not regard himself as a tool of the ruling military/landowner clique. Yet that doesn’t mean that the policies he adopted didn’t end up serving the right-wing cause, making him, despite his intentions, their proxy. And it certainly doesn’t mean, as Radosh apparently believes, that the left-wing guerrillas in opposition to Duarte were “a pro-Soviet revolutionary group.” The proof of that, according to Radosh, is that they failed to inspire massive and sustained support from El Salvador’s poor. But it can also be argued, as Radosh does not, that the guerrillas were simply too factionalized and ideologically divided to animate a mass movement.

Radosh gives far more attention in Commies to the Sandinistas. Once again, he started out a supporter, thrilled that the Front for National Liberation had, in armed conflict, toppled Somoza’s cruel dictatorship, believing that the Sandinista regime would be democratic and pluralist, and appalled that the United States was backing the contras in a brutal civil war. But in 1983, on assignment for The New Republic, Radosh went to Nicaragua for a firsthand look. And what he concluded, over a period of time, led him to change his mind.

When the Sandinista regime proclaimed a state of emergency, suspending civil liberties and political rights, when it jailed some domestic dissidents, including labor militants, and when it attacked the Miskito Indians on the Caribbean coast, Radosh decided–too uncomplicatedly, I believe–that the Soviet Union had become the Sandinista Front’s material support and Castro’s Cuba its political model: The front had fallen into the hands of “ultrarevolutionary Marxist-Leninists.”

Many left-liberals, including Irving Howe (rightly, in my view), rebuked Radosh for taking an exaggerated position, pointing out that the Sandinista leadership included many democrats as well, and that in any case, the Sandinistas should not be publicly criticized while “under attack” by the American empire. Radosh replied, with some justice, that the same adamant advice (and ostracism) had been handed out by American leftists fifty years earlier to those who, like Emma Goldman, pointed to the betrayal of the Russian Revolution.

Not wanting to rely solely on my own limited knowledge of Central America, I asked the respected expert Laird Bergad, director of the CUNY Center for Latin American, Caribbean and Latino Studies, to read over a few of Radosh’s pages on the Sandinistas. “Fundamentally,” Bergad told me, “Radosh is right. There were too many Stalinists among the leadership. By following the Castro model they did submerge democratic impulses, and their attack on the Miskito Indians was a huge blunder.”

Bergad also felt, however, that although some of Daniel Ortega’s acts were regrettable, Radosh overuses Ortega as the personification of the Sandinista regime. And we would do well to remember, Bergad added, that the Sandinistas were responsible, after all, for overthrowing the feral Somoza regime–a dictatorship far worse than that of the Sandinistas.

We should also add, on Radosh’s side, that he has valuably reminded the left in this country that we have all too often in the past greeted insurgent movements uncritically and turned a blind eye to mounting evidence of repression; when the evidence could no longer be dismissed, we’ve sometimes resorted to ethically dubious slogans like “you can’t make an omelette without breaking some eggs” or “the revolution may be less than perfect but we have to maintain solidarity with those resisting the encroachments of the American Empire.”

As for the Rosenbergs, Radosh’s name has been centrally connected to their case for some twenty years. The 1983 book The Rosenberg File, which he wrote with Joyce Milton, billed itself as a disinterested, scholarly “search for the truth,” and indeed the book’s conclusions could be considered moderate–that is, when measured against the inflamed rhetoric surrounding the case in the early 1950s, when the Rosenbergs (who were executed in 1953) were denounced for having “stolen the secret of the atom bomb” and given it to the Soviets–“the crime of the century,” J. Edgar Hoover called it.

By the time the Radosh/Milton book appeared, public views had become less apocalyptic. It was understood by then that there hadn’t been any single secret central to making the bomb, that the Soviets’ own scientists had already made headway toward producing atomic weapons–and the spy who had most helped them was not Julius Rosenberg but the British physicist Klaus Fuchs.

In general, The Rosenberg File confirmed those views. It insisted that Julius had run a spy ring, but that the evidence of Ethel’s complicity was weak; that a scientific sketch obtained by David Greenglass (Ethel’s brother) and passed through Harry Gold to the Russians was in fact of low-level importance and certainly not the secret for making an atomic bomb; that both the prosecutorial and defense lawyers–indeed, almost everyone involved with the case–had behaved badly, depriving the Rosenbergs of a fair trial.

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.

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.

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?