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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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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."