The Defense Rests

A longtime champion of the Rosenbergs tries to confront the evidence.

Attending a 1983 debate in New York City on the Rosenberg spy case, a correspondent for the New Republic—as it happens, the distinguished Harvard philosopher Robert Nozick—commented that he had “never before seen anyone exude such absolute self-righteousness, or any adult exhibit such petulance.” He was watching the journalist Walter Schneir defend, in the face of mounting contrary evidence, the atomic spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg—and denounce a recondite government conspiracy to frame them—30 years after their execution. Presenting the opposite case, for the Rosenbergs’ guilt, were Ronald Radosh and Joyce Milton, who had recently published “The Rosenberg File.” In the atmosphere of the evening—to judge by Mr. Nozick’s account—Mr. Radosh and Ms. Milton were made to play the role of villain, McCarthyites masquerading as historians, to be mau-maued by New York’s beau monde.

Mr. Schneir at the time was known, along with his wife, Miriam, as one of the Rosenbergs’ most dogged defenders. Together they had written “Invitation to an Inquest” (1965), a book positing a massive government conspiracy to frame the Rosenbergs. The only problem with their position was that it proved to be wrong. Starting in the 1990s, with the release of intelligence decrypts and the testimony of ex-KGB employees, historians firmly established that Julius Rosenberg was a Soviet agent and that his wife, Ethel, helped the network to courier documents and recruit pro-Moscow leftists.

Now, almost a half-century after the publication of “Invitation to an Inquest” we have “Final Verdict,” again revisiting the Rosenberg case. Mr. Schneir, who died in 2009, is the author; Mrs. Schneir provides a preface and afterword. The book does grudgingly admit that Julius Rosenberg was a Stalinist agent (Ethel remains, in the Schneirs’ view, an innocent bystander). But “Final Verdict,” a slim volume purporting to tell “what really had happened” in 200 pages and two-dozen footnotes, makes no serious attempt at reaching historical truth, instead offering a selective and ultimately unconvincing attempt at personal vindication.

It is evident that the Schneirs were never unbiased, truth-seeking historians. Upon discovering yet another piece of evidence suggesting that Julius Rosenberg labored on behalf of the Kremlin, Mr. Schneir sighs that the new information is “not what we would have hoped.” The couple “had to admit” that new, contradictory evidence was damaging to the case for innocence. The revelations of the past two decades, he writes, were “painful news for many people, as it is for us.”

It is advisable to discount the judgments of those who, when attempting to solve a historical riddle, declare archival revelations “painful” or contrary to the investigator’s “hopes.” But after decades of impugning the integrity of scholars with whom they disagreed, Mr. Schneir declares grandly that he has “no regrets, no apologies.” (Before her execution, Ethel Rosenberg wrote that she had “no fear and no regrets.”)

Mr. Radosh and Ms. Milton, who were right, barely merit a mention in “Final Verdict,” much less an apology. The work of America’s two most prolific historians of Soviet espionage, Harvey Klehr and John Earl Haynes—whose most recent book, “Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America,” closes the books on both the Rosenberg and Alger Hiss spy cases—is haughtily dismissed, as are their revelations that Ethel Rosenberg was involved in the recruiting of agents.

Readers are told instead that the Rosenbergs engaged in mere “prevarications,” while prosecutors offered “concocted evidence,” “hyperbole” and “perjurious testimony,” spinning a “monstrous web of lies” that provoked baying “lynch mobs” in the media. “Faced with an impossible predicament,” Mr. Schneir explains, “the Rosenbergs merely denied everything.”

And they lied with good reason, he theorizes, because “disclosing [Soviet espionage networks in the U.S.] would have fuelled the hysteria of the times and perhaps resulted in mass pickups and incarceration in concentration camps of tens of thousands of Communists and other leftists.” Really? American intelligence agencies were aware of many Soviet networks and yet never submitted to the instinct—of which the Stalinist Julius Rosenberg would surely have approved—to construct gulags for political dissidents. Indeed, while Moscow was terrorizing anyone who stood against the glorious Soviet future, the U.S. government was sentencing Alger Hiss, a State Department employee working for Soviet military intelligence, to a mere five years on a perjury charge.

Despite its acknowledgment of Julius’s guilt, “Final Verdict” is still leavened with arguments that espionage on behalf of a contemporaneous ally wasn’t such a big deal. In her afterword, Miriam Schneir writes that the Rosenbergs’ orphaned son Michael works as director of the Rosenberg Fund for Children, an organization assisting those whose parents “suffered some form of injury as a consequence of activities in progressive causes.” Among those causes, apparently, is performing espionage on behalf of a communist government.

Ms. Schneir explains that her late husband was “in the era of 9/11 . . . more certain than ever that the Rosenberg case provided an instructive example of how easily the justice system can be corrupted by fear of dissident ideas.” Julius Rosenberg’s “dissident ideas” aren’t addressed at any length, lest the reader get a glimpse at the grotesque ideology that allowed for defending Soviet totalitarianism.

Ms. Schnier cites the Czech dissident writer Milan Kundera, who described the “men and women who were falsely charged with crimes against the state, convicted in sham trials, and hanged.” But Mr. Kundera was thinking of those in occupied Czechoslovakia accused by communist apparatchiks of phantom crimes, not communist apparatchiks in America convicted of real crimes.

Mr. Moynihan is a senior editor of Reason magazine.

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