The Magazine

Fellow Traveling Is Alive and Well

The Rosenbergs find an apologist in a reference work

Apr 10, 2000, Vol. 5, No. 29 • By HARVEY KLEHR and JOHN EARL HAYNES
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Published last year in 24 volumes, the American National Biography has been justifiably praised by reviewers. It received the American Library Association's Dart-mouth Medal as the best reference work of the year. Sponsored by the American Council of Learned Societies, the ANB replaces the venerable but out-of-date Dictionary of American Biography, first issued in 1928 as a standard biographical resource, and is already on the shelves of thousands of school and academic libraries.

A reference work like the ANB is expected to offer reliable information and reflect the consensus of the best scholarly thinking, not to offer one-sided interpretations or disputatious views. Entries are carefully vetted and edited through several iterations. What, then, possessed the editors of the ANB to print a bizarre, even absurd, entry on Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were convicted for espionage on behalf of the Soviet Union and executed in 1953?

For scholars who know the Rosenberg case, the ANB entry is either a source of amusement, embarrassment, or irritation, but no reputable scholar can take it seriously as an accurate summary of what is known about the Rosenbergs or their case. For example, it has been common knowledge for years that both Rosenbergs were Communists and that Julius was an active figure among student Communists at CCNY. The ANB entry camouflages this information behind euphemisms (Julius was "active in left-wing student circles") and evasions (he was fired from the Signal Corps for being a Communist but "he denied" it).

Without actually saying so, the entry suggests they were religious Jews, both raised in "orthodox Jewish families" and that "Julius also received religious instruction at Downtown Talmud Torah and Hebrew High School." Although the two abandoned their youthful Jewish orthodoxy for communism -- a loyalty they retained until their execution -- this goes unmentioned in the essay. But the author's conclusion of the case having an "anti-Semitic subtext" remains. A student unfamiliar with the Rosenberg case, exactly the audience that will consult the ANB, will come away with no knowledge of their actually being Communists but with the definite impression that they were executed because they were Jews.

The entry offers an equally distorted version of the Rosenbergs' trial, portraying the evidence against them as weak and probably perjured. It devotes several laudatory paragraphs to writers and books that uphold their innocence and, in contrast, dismisses with a single sentence the most detailed and scholarly account of the case, Radosh and Milton's The Rosenberg File, which found them guilty. As for new evidence from Soviet archives and interviews with Julius Rosenberg's KGB control officer, the essay cavalierly and incorrectly dismisses such material as "discredited." Even more dishonestly, there is no mention that Walter and Miriam Schneir, longtime defenders of the Rosenbergs, reluctantly admitted several years ago that Julius was indeed a spy.

Those who have concluded that the Rosenbergs committed espionage are denounced as "conservative writers" and "conservatives and Anti-Communist or Cold War liberals" for whom their "unquestioning belief in the Rosenbergs' guilt" was "a kind of loyalty oath." In contrast, upholding the innocence of the Rosenbergs was "the most significant expression of resistance to the spread of the domestic Cold War in the United States" by "radicals and anti-Cold War liberals."

The author of this tendentious essay is Norman Markowitz, a tenured professor at Rutgers University and one of the few academicians who writes for the People's Weekly World -- the newspaper of the Communist party of the United States -- and its theoretical magazine, Political Affairs. He specializes in personally attacking not only those "conservative" scholars who have dared to suggest the right side won the Cold War, but also liberals and former allies who have been persuaded by new evidence of the CPUSA's involvement in Soviet espionage, offering party-line justifications and rationales for his conclusions. Back in the early 1980s, at a meeting of the Historians of American Communism, an academic group in which both of us have been active, Markowitz announced to all that he was most proud of having just joined the CPUSA, surely one of the prime examples of jumping onto a sinking ship.

It is no surprise, of course, that some of the last Marxist-Leninists in the world reside in American universities. But ideological zealots with axes to grind are not usually picked to write entries on controversial political figures for a standard reference work. The Rosenberg entry has some incongruous wording, and this may reflect the ANB editors' belated realization that they had made an unfortunate choice in an author. The first sentence of the essay reads "Rosenberg, Ethel (28 Sept. 1915 -- 19 June 1953), and Julius Rosenberg (12 May 1918 -- 19 June 1953), spies," followed by an essay devoted to the message that they were not spies. (Even more bizarre, the online version of the ANB calls them "accused spies," as if they had not even been convicted.) And after many paragraphs devoted to arguing for the Rosenbergs' innocence, the essay ends with a non sequitur: "The Rosenberg case has remained subject to debate and reinterpretation."

But to scholars of the Rosenberg case the main points are not subject to debate. The evidence available in the 1950s was enough to sustain their conviction. And more recent documents available from Russia and the Venona files make clear that Julius headed an extensive Soviet espionage apparatus, engaged in atomic spying, and his wife Ethel not only knew about his activities but actively assisted her husband. About the only disputed question is whether the death penalty was excessive.

Norman Markowitz may be so ideologically blind as not to see this, but the editors of the American National Biography should have been more clear-eyed. Scholars will be unaffected by Markowitz's absurdity, but the ANB's editors have allowed this distortion of historical fact to be palmed off on many thousands of unsuspecting students for decades to come.