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
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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.