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Physics and Politics

The embarrassing but mostly harmless leftism of Albert Einstein.

Jul 15, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 42 • By RONALD RADOSH
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The Einstein File
J. Edgar Hoover's Secret War Against the World's Most Famous Scientist
by Fred Jerome
St. Martin's, 358 pp., $27.95

THERE IS NO DOUBT that J. Edgar Hoover was guilty of sustained abuses of power. The FBI chief's anti-communism had (as the historian Richard Gid Powers puts it) such a "hard edge" that even when he was on target he seemed "tendentious and repressive"--and, by now, most Americans remember him primarily as a threat to civil liberty.

Building upon this consensus, Fred Jerome has produced a book that promises to reveal the extent of Hoover's personal crusade to destroy Albert Einstein. But "The Einstein File: J. Edgar Hoover's Secret War Against the World's Most Famous Scientist" is not simply a chronicle of the FBI's sometimes silly and wasteful effort to track Einstein's every move and idea. The book is, rather, one last attempt to claim that the very existence of communism in the 1940s and 1950s was nothing but the excuse for a government campaign of repression against dissenters from the Cold War.

On the whole, that's not surprising. Jerome worked in the mid-1960s as one of the original founders of the Progressive Labor party, a Maoist splinter group that thought both the American Communist party and the Soviets in Moscow too soft. Thus, in "The Einstein File," Hoover is invariably described as a man "keeping company with this country's native Nazis," with Nazi "officials in Berlin," and a man with "possible pro-Nazi linkages"--all of which is supposed to provide the reason for the FBI's targeting of Einstein in 1940.

Jerome may well be right that Hoover and the FBI at times accepted the analysis of the most extreme counter-subversives. But Jerome puts little stock in Jerrold and Leona Schechter's convincing demonstration that Einstein's mistress, Margarita Konenkova, was a longtime spotter for the KGB who reported on which of Einstein's friends the Russians might try to recruit for espionage. Her friendship with Einstein was of great importance to Soviet intelligence. Moscow knew, for example, that Einstein had close contact with many scientists involved in the Manhattan Project. Through Konenkova, the KGB got Einstein to agree to a meeting in the fall of 1945, where Einstein was pressed to become a spokesman for the sharing of nuclear secrets with Stalin.

Einstein himself--despite his signing the letter to President Roosevelt that prompted the United States to begin work on the atomic bomb--did not work on the bomb. The physicist Hans Bethe suggested this was because Einstein never worked in the practical areas of nuclear physics and explosives in which experts were needed. But Jerome insists the reason is far more sinister: Einstein was excluded because the FBI relied on Nazi intelligence that branded him a dangerous Jewish pacifist. Worse, Jerome suggests, Einstein would have turned against the project once the war against Germany was over. Thus, in order to ensure completion of the bomb to use against Japan, they had to keep Einstein out.

This all assumes, of course, the mad notion that people at the time knew exactly how long the bomb would take to make and when the war would end. Indeed, Jerome reasserts the old Cold War revisionism that the bomb was dropped in Japan solely to end the war before the Soviet Union intervened--which, in point of fact, matches Einstein's later blaming of Hiroshima on Truman's anti-Soviet policy.

From the FBI vendetta to destroy Einstein's credibility, Jerome moves in "The Einstein File" to suggest, in an odd way, that the FBI was right: Einstein was a profoundly perceptive dissenter, an opponent of the Cold War and American racism, a pacifist, and a left-wing socialist. Einstein was not merely a brilliant scientist, Jerome thinks, but also a brilliant political observer. And thus everyone from historians to textbook writers to the FBI has been forced to hide Einstein's views from the record, so that those who admire him will not realize that Einstein opposed American foreign policy and favored socialism.

Actually, Einstein's views hardly suffered repression at the time. For decades the left-wing socialist publication Monthly Review regularly republished the essay "Why Socialism?," which Einstein had written for its first issue in 1949. Even Jerome is forced to admit that "almost all of Einstein's outspoken political stands were major news stories." There may actually have been something like a general agreement to make Einstein's "anti-establishment politics" a "non-story" since the scientist's death in 1955. But that isn't, as Jerome thinks, because we wanted to suppress his political insights. It's because we wanted to preserve his scientific reputation, and the naivet of his political views is an embarrassment.

Jerome, however, wants Einstein to be a "role-model" for today's youth, who might emulate his politics if only they knew about them. Thus "The Einstein File" cannot stop itself from concluding that Einstein would "have been alarmed" after September 11 at Washington's "military attacks abroad and repression at home," and at the "unapologetic bombing of civilians; the roundup . . . with no evidence, of thousands of Arabs."

SO--forced to take up the question again--what shall we say now of Einstein's politics? The scientist lent his prestige to innumerable causes: the campaign to stop lynchings, the Loyalist government and the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War, the postwar Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists, the protest at the arrest of Communist party officials under the Smith Act in 1948--and on and on. He also joined his name to "The Cultural and Scientific Conference for World Peace" held in the spring of 1949 by a Communist front group called the Arts, Sciences, and Professions Council. Greetings to the conference--which Jerome mentions to show us how broad-based and innocent the meeting was--were sent by such prominent figures as Prime Minister Nehru of India, the Irish playwright Sean O'Casey, and the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera. Americans included Lillian Hellman, Dorothy Parker, Langston Hughes, George Seldes, Aaron Copland, Norman Mailer, and Leonard Bernstein.

In other words, it was a prestigious and harmless group of proud and defiant left-wingers. Jerome writes disarmingly that the meeting "provided interesting and often intense debates between pro-Moscow delegates and many who believed there had to be a non-Soviet alternative to 'the American Century.'" Thus, he mocks Life magazine's coverage, which depicted a picket holding a sign, "Stop Stalin; Save Slovakia!" Jerome is most infuriated that Life called it a meeting made up of "dupes and fellow travelers."

Unfortunately for Jerome, the truth about that meeting has long been known. In his 1990 memoir, "Being Red," Howard Fast--in the postwar years still a leading Communist--reveals how he and other members of the "Cultural Section" of the American Communist party created the conference. "Over five hundred of the nation's leading intellectuals were willing to put their careers and names on the line for a conference created by the Communist Party," Fast notes. "The lines were clearly drawn, and no one at the conference had any illusions as to who the organizers were." Perhaps not, except at the time all those intellectuals lied and claimed that it was slander to say that the meeting was run by the Communist party.

TO LOOK BACK over Einstein's career is to see a parade of such embarrassments. He supported Henry Wallace's run for president in 1948 as candidate of the Progressive party (which Jerome admits the Communist party had a "crucial role" in setting up, but which, he insists, understood that "Red-baiting" was "far more destructive [than] having communists work" in the campaign). "The Einstein File" also contains a chapter outlining Einstein's relations with Paul Robeson and W.E.B. DuBois, the great African-American scholar who had drifted to the far left and become a strong supporter of Stalinism.

Jerome also presents Einstein's public attempts to gain clemency for Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. This is not necessarily proof of Communist affiliation. Many throughout the world, including the pope, made similar appeals. Others argued that the death sentence would only make them into martyrs and thereby help Communist propaganda. But in Jerome's telling, it becomes precisely the Communist aspects of the case that are significant. The Rosenbergs were a "watershed issue" for the left, Jerome writes, and in calling for clemency Einstein became "a political hero."

Jerome scathingly mocks an FBI memo that read, "Einstein has often been found among the ranks of deluded liberals who front for Communists." But it is a conclusion that now seems not so wide of the mark, however much "The Einstein File" takes umbrage at the "image of an otherworldly Einstein wandering through the world with his head in a far-off mathematical mist." This is the man who told a Russian War Relief rally that "in Russia the equality of all national and cultural groups is not merely nominal but is actually practiced." This is the man who told an interviewer that "the philosophy behind communism has a lot of merit," and that he "refused to let the American anti-Communist stampede deter him from supporting what he considered just causes." This is the man who wrote Norman Thomas, "I believe America is incomparably less endangered by its own Communists than by the historical hunt for the few Communists there are here."

READERS SHOULD CONSULT Edward S. Shapiro's "Letters of Sidney Hook." Einstein had told Hook that the Soviets could never be a "menace to the United States," a judgment which Hook harshly answered. Einstein took great offense at Hook's letter, and Hook responded that Einstein might consider judging Soviet policy as he did that of Nazi Germany--by looking at the facts and not the words that came out of Stalin's mouth. Indeed, Hook was shocked when Einstein wrote that "it is difficult to decide whether it would have been possible for the Russians to survive by following softer methods," a judgment which Hook accurately took as apologia. How, Hook asked Einstein, could the purges and the terror have "helped the Russians to survive" or the "wholesale executions contributed in any way to the Russian victory over Hitler?"

In 1951 the French physicist and Communist Irene Joliot-Curie accused the American forces in Korea of using germ warfare. Hook asked Einstein to join other American Nobel laureates to sign a statement calling for objective examination of the charges. Einstein refused and instead condemned the petition as a "counter-action promoted by politicians." Hook was dumbfounded, especially since, as he wrote Einstein, the scientist had "knowingly lent your name and great scientific authority time and time again to many Communist front groups for exploitation here and abroad."

So where does all this bring us? For Jerome--an author who writes as if Alger Hiss were innocent and only "the first of many 'spies' who would soon be uncovered" in the Red Scare days--the picture that emerges is simply a cartoon. Scientists were "especially suspect" because McCarthyite yahoos saw them as "dangerous intellectuals, many of whom were also 'foreigners' and/or Jews."

It somehow does not occur to Jerome that--given the number of scientists who in fact were willing to spy for the Soviets--good reason existed to insist on high security measures when choosing personnel for work on American defense projects.

This, of course, does not excuse J. Edgar Hoover's belief that Einstein too might be a spy, which Jerome shows in scathing detail. There was no link between Einstein and Klaus Fuchs, and much of the FBI's data was based on secondhand and incorrect reports, including rumors of a nonexistent Einstein son who was held hostage by the Soviets in order to gain Einstein's cooperation.

Indeed, Jerome himself quotes a G-2 file which concluded that they found "considerable support by Einstein of CP fronts but no evidence to support active participation w/ Soviet agents active in Germany." That accurate assessment, so different from Hoover's willingness to entertain any crank's report, does in fact show the differences between Hoover's deficiencies and rational reporting by other intelligence agencies.

Jerome has a field day telling about the campaign to have Einstein denaturalized and deported, based on spurious charges, many of them emanating from the far-right Catholic newspaper The Tablet. Yet "The Einstein File" uses all of this to paint a picture of America on the verge of fascism, suffering under an "epidemic" of McCarthyism. And in this fanciful portrait of a cowered nation, Einstein is depicted as the leader of a new "call to resistance." Jerome even accuses Einstein's current defenders of sanitizing his left-wing record because they are still "frightened by Hoover's Red-baiting." It does not occur to him that in uncovering Einstein's record, they find his rather typical fellow-traveling activities hardly something of distinction.

THE UNFORTUNATE TRUTH is that Albert Einstein was as gullible on the Cold War as the average college leftist. American scientists' uncritical attitude on everything affecting the Soviet Union, Sidney Hook once wrote, could be attributed to "stubborn ignorance, sometimes compounded by a refusal to examine the evidence of the nature of Soviet Communism." More than fifty years later, there seems no reason to alter that judgment.

Ronald Radosh, adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute, is co-author with Mary Habeck of "Spain Betrayed: The Soviet Union in the Spanish Civil War" and author of a memoir, "Commies: A Journey Through the Old Left, the New Left and the Leftover Left."