June 25, 2003

Cold War Revisited

It has been 50 years now since Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed for espionage, and that milestone has generated a look back at June, 1953. Greg Yardley had a piece at Front Page Magazine that reports on a recent "cultural program" on the Rosenbergs in New York City, headlined by Michael and Robert Meeropol, the two sons of the Rosenbergs. It seems that even in the post-Venona era, Rosenberg defenders/apologists remain:

Defenders of the Rosenbergs have always conducted a Janus-like, two-faced defense, ever since the Rosenbergs were arrested. Out of one side of their mouth, they haltingly claim that Julius and Ethel were innocent of their crimes (in direct contradiction of the evidence). Out of the other, they say if the Rosenbergs spied for the Soviet Union, and if they refused to turn in their Communist masters, these were quite forgivable sins - honorable, even, in the face of an 'imperialistic' and capitalist America. They can't adequately deny the Rosenbergs' crimes, nor can they adequately defend them - so they do both at once, hoping to be half-successful twice.

Ron Radosh, a Rosenberg scholar by any standard, co-author of The Rosenberg File, suggests in an Open Letter to the Rosenberg sons that they just give it up.

Why can’t you admit that the Venona decrypts conclusively prove that American Communists were indeed agents of a foreign power? The same decrypts show that your father put together a network of seven primary sources and two active liaison-couriers, as well as three others who carried out support work. All of these people were recruited, as was your father, from the ranks of the American Communist Party. Your father stole top secret military data, including the proximity fuse that years later the Soviets used to shoot down Major Francis Gary Powers’ U-2 plane. Klehr and Haynes refer to the fuse as “one of the most innovative advances of American military technology,” for which Moscow awarded your father a $1,000 bonus in March 1945.

I admit to having a passion for reading about Soviet espionage in the 30's and 40's. Starting about eight years ago with Whittaker Chambers' autobiography, Witness , I became fascinated with Chambers and the Alger Hiss case and subsequently read everything I could get my hands on regarding the Venona decrypts, including The Venona Secrets , by Breindel and Romerstein, the series by Klehr and Haynes , and The Haunted Wood , by Allen Weinstein.

All of that background interest explains why I was knocked out this past weekend, when along comes Robert Novak in The Weekly Standard with a wonderful essay on Harry Truman and The Origins of McCarthyism. Delivering a "message" passed along to him by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Novak's premise is that there is now strong evidence to suggest that the whole nasty spectacle we know as "McCarthyism" might have been avoided had Truman been more forthright about what he knew, as early as 1950, about the Venona decrypts and the proof they contained that, at the very least, Alger Hiss and Harry Dexter White were Soviet spies. Moynihan had suggested that Truman's aides had shielded this information from him, but other sources say Truman was briefed early and often, but simply misunderstood or mistrusted the Venona information, or for political reasons, chose to ignore it. Read it all. It's an example of Novak's talents as a reporter and writer, and makes for compelling reading even if you're not an espionage freak like me. Here's a sample:

As Truman told Secretary of Defense James Forrestal, there were "too many unknowns" in the partially decoded Soviet messages. "Even if part of this is true, it would open up the whole red panic again." Truman told Forrestal he could not believe that President Roosevelt could have been taken in by traitors in his midst. At any rate, Truman said he did not believe that Russian penetration of the government could be as widespread as Venona indicated.

In 1950, Bradley informed Truman that Venona had identified two senior U.S. government officials--Alger Hiss at the State Department and Harry Dexter White at the Treasury--as Soviet agents. "The president was most upset and agitated by this," said Bradley. According to Bradley, Truman said: "That goddamn stuff. Every time it bumps into us it gets bigger and bigger. It's likely to take us down." "In the coming decade," the Schecters write, "the nation would pay heavily for Truman's failure to expose Soviet intelligence networks within the United States. By treating the successes of Venona as a 'fairy story,' the president ceded control of the issue of Communist influence in the U.S. government to the political enemies from whom he had hoped to keep it secret. The result turned America inward against itself, creating a paroxysm of name-calling, finger-pointing, and informing on former party members or suspected Communists."

Posted by dan at June 25, 2003 1:05 AM