The Magazine

Black and White and Red All Over

The ‘New York Times’ can’t handle the truth.

Nov 29, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 11 • By HARVEY KLEHR and JOHN EARL HAYNES
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The New York Times may be the paper of record, but its record leaves much to be desired when the issue is Soviet espionage in the United States. Where the Times is not obscuring the historical record, it is willfully obtuse. Consider Charles Isherwood’s recent review of the newly opened play After the Revolution. The glowing notice is indeed merited. The cast is superb, and playwright Amy Herzog has written a witty, morally complicated, and engrossing drama about the turmoil that engulfs a radical family when details emerge about their deceased patriarch’s role as a Soviet spy during World War II. 

Black and White and Red All Over

But the review also highlights the problems that continue to afflict the Times when the subject turns to the Soviet Union’s American spies. For instance, Isherwood speculates that “the play seems partly inspired by the recent revelations about Julius Rosenberg, whose culpability had been debated since his execution for spying, along with his wife Ethel, in 1953.” Debated? Julius Rosenberg’s guilt has long been established: He and Ethel were convicted in a court of law in 1951, and the evidence has been thoroughly documented. Among other publications detailing the proof are: The Rosenberg File (1983) by Ronald Radosh and Joyce Milton; the 1995 release of the National Security Agency’s decryptions of World War II Soviet KGB cables (21 of which report on Julius’s espionage); the 2001 autobiography of Alexander Feklisov, Rosenberg’s KGB controller; and Steven Usdin’s Engineering Communism (2005), which laid out the enormous extent of the Rosenberg ring’s espionage in the field of military technology. There are no more lingering doubts about the Rosenbergs’ “culpability”—except in the precincts inhabited by the employees of the New York Times

The Times, it seems, has made a long-term investment in historical revisionism. Just last month the paper devoted a lengthy review to a new book by two veteran defenders of the Rosenbergs, Walter and Miriam Schneir. Their magnum opus, Invitation to an Inquest, published in 1965 and updated in 1983, argued that the Rosenbergs had not been spies at all, that the chief witnesses against them, Harry Gold and David Greenglass, were fantasists, and that the whole case was simply a government plot to demonize and persecute the American left. The Schneirs’ new book, Final Verdict: What Really Happened in the Rosenberg Case, uses no new archival sources, contains only a smattering of footnotes, and ignores copious documentation, but does at least have the merit of acknowledging that their earlier thesis was false. No big deal, they defiantly write, “no apologies, no regrets”: Now they admit that Julius Rosenberg was a Soviet spy, but an inconsequential one who had very little to do with atomic espionage. The Times’s review concluded that the Schneirs’ new thesis, despite their tainted history as interpreters of the Rosenberg case, is plausible. 

The paper not only continues to ignore the facts about the Rosenbergs, but also avoids the more general question concerning the role American Communists played in Soviet espionage. When our first book on the topic, The Secret World of American Communism, came out in 1995, the Times at first ignored it, even with revelations taken from previously sealed Russian archives that demonstrated widespread cooperation between the Communist Party of the United States and the KGB. It was Hilton Kramer’s series of articles for the New York Post chiding the paper for its lack of coverage that apparently prompted the Times to include our book in a joint review. 

The appearance of the deciphered KGB cables of the Venona project in 1995 unnerved the Times. Although the paper published a lengthy article in the “Week In Review” section about the scholarly brouhahas it had stirred up, the topic clearly made its editorial board uncomfortable. In a lead editorial on October 23, 1998, the Times smeared unnamed scholars “armed with audacity and new archival information” who were using “opaque and ambiguous” documents to “rewrite the historical verdict” that McCarthyism was a graver danger to American democracy than Communist subversion and Soviet espionage, which, the editors allowed, was greater than previously realized. Although none of the scholars that the Times refrained from naming—ourselves and Ronald Radosh—who so exercised the editorial writers had ever expressed any sympathy for Senator Joseph McCarthy and had explicitly stated that the new evidence did not vindicate his actions, mere mention of his name was intended to reassure readers that they had no reason to rethink old shibboleths about all those accused of espionage as innocent victims of a paranoid political era. 

Hence, it is no surprise that the Times’s critic misses the main point of After the Revolution. It was not, as Isherwood writes, inspired by the Rosenberg case, but rather by events touched off with the 1999 publication of our book Venona: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America. The family dispute erupts when a “friend at Yale Press” (which published our book) informs a member of the family that a forthcoming title will name Joe Joseph as a Soviet spy. Playwright Amy Herzog confirmed to us that her father’s stepfather was Julius Joseph, identified in our book as a Soviet spy. 

In the play, Joe’s granddaughter Emma is horrified to learn that the man whom she was raised to idolize as a principled and honest radical actually betrayed his country. She is even more disconcerted because as a recently minted lawyer, she has founded and heads a legal defense fund named for him that is devoted to defending political prisoners, most notably the convicted cop-killer Mumia Abu-Jamal. Her subsequent conflicts with her family members and boyfriend over whether she should close down the fund and return its donors’ money is the result of her shock at learning that the political legends that had fed her youth were lies.

And how does Isherwood deal with this dilemma? In the only critical comment he makes about the play, he complains that Emma’s “unbending rectitude” stalls the action as she engages in a “long temper tantrum, ignoring the pressing needs of the fund.” In other words, the question of whether Mumia is as guilty as her grandfather is a distraction from the real concern, which, according to Isherwood, is “the atmosphere of fear that pervaded liberal circles during the witch-hunt years.”

Amy Herzog and her play, which grapples seriously with the ethical issues raised by her grandfather’s espionage, deserve better. So does the historical record. 

John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr are coauthors, with Alexander Vassiliev, of Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America (Yale University Press).

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