The last time we checked, Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States was in its twenty-fifth printing and had sold some 500,000 copies. It is probably more widely used in American classrooms than any other survey of the subject. This is a pity, for the book should really be titled “An Anti-American History of the United States.” Although published long before the term “political correctness” gained currency, Howard Zinn’s opus is a perfect specimen of political correctness on everything from the depredations of supposedly genocidal Europeans who forged the nation and deprived the noble, peace-loving Indians of their happy hunting grounds to the Vietnam War as a prime example of American imperialism and beyond.
Pick a topic, any topic, and you can be sure that Zinn is there with the standard-issue, off-the-rack left-wing cliché to explain it. Take the execution of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg in June 1953, for example. The Rosenbergs had been convicted of espionage, and not just your common or garden-variety espionage. They (Julius in particular) had funneled to the Soviets information critical to the construction of atomic weapons. According to Zinn, though, their conviction, and subsequent execution, was chiefly an illustration of right-wing, anti-Communist zealotry in the United States—“a demonstration to the people of the country … of what lay at the end of the line for those the government decided were traitors.” In a later essay, Zinn asked whether the Rosenbergs had been executed “because they were guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of passing atomic secrets to the Soviet Union”—or was it because “they were Communists” who had the misfortune to advertise their beliefs at a moment when “anti-Communist hysteria” was sweeping the country.
Zinn meant the questions to be rhetorical. Of course it was a matter of anti-Communist “hysteria.” But the true answer, we now know, was the former.
We say “now,” but in fact the Rosenbergs’ guilt has been established “beyond a reasonable doubt” at least since Ronald Radosh and Joyce Milton published The Rosenberg File: A Search for the Truth in 1983. It has taken until now, however, for the news to penetrate the carapace of leftist denial. The Rosenbergs were spies for one of the most brutal tyrannies in history. Their treachery collaterally aided in blighting the lives of those nameless millions who suffered under the jackboot of Soviet Communism. Yet the Left adamantly denied the Rosenbergs’ guilt almost as vociferously as they did Alger Hiss’s. But just as it has been incontrovertibly demonstrated that Hiss was guilty of espionage, so it is with the Rosenbergs. Last month, Morton Sobell, co-defendent with the Rosenbergs, finally came clean at the age of 91. Sobell had been sentenced to thirty years in prison for his role in the case. He had always protested his innocence. Now, fifty years on, he finally acknowledged that he and Julius Rosenberg were both Soviet agents.
As Ronald Radosh wrote in The Los Angeles Times, with Sobell’s stunning admission,
the end has arrived for the legions of the American left wing that have argued relentlessly for more than half a century that the Rosenbergs were victims, framed by a hostile, fear-mongering U.S. government. Since the couple’s trial, the left has portrayed them as martyrs for civil liberties, righteous dissenters whose chief crime was to express their constitutionally protected political beliefs. In the end, the left has argued, the two communists were put to death not for spying but for their unpopular opinions, at a time when the Truman and Eisenhower administrations were seeking to stem opposition to their anti-Soviet foreign policy during the Cold War.
That “narrative” (as our lit-crit profs say) is now thoroughly discredited. It is, to speak plainly, false. But will that fact penetrate the collective epidermis of the Left? For decades, the Left protested Alger Hiss’s innocence. When that became embarrassingly untenable, they switched tactics: he was innocent though guilty. The response in the Rosenberg case will likely take a page from the Clintons: Let’s move on. All that was long ago. Who cares about the Cold War now anyway?
Radosh is good on this issue, too: “To many Americans,” he notes, “Cold War espionage cases like the Rosenberg and Alger Hiss cases that once riveted the country seem irrelevant today, something out of the distant past. But they’re not irrelevant. They’re a crucial part of the ongoing dispute between right and left in this country.” The issue is not only the integrity of historical truth—important though that undoubtedly is. At stake is also the inveterate left-wing habit of confusing “idealism” and totalitarian hubris. It is a curious fact that, at least since Rousseau, the Left, intoxicated by the contemplation of its own higher virtue, has consistently apologized and made excuses for tyrannies fired by utopian moralism while at the same time it has castigated those political initiatives that actually help improve the lives of the downtrodden and dispossessed. It is almost too good to be true, but it is true, that the Rosenbergs’ sons, Michael and Robert, today run a fund that dispenses grants to the children of those they consider to be “political prisoners.” Example? The convicted cop killer Mumia Abu-Jamal. Radosh tartly notes the irony: “if there was any government that staged show trials for political ends, it was the government for which the Rosenbergs gave up their lives, that of the former Soviet Union.” We wonder whether Howard Zinn and his ideological confrères can discern, even if they fail to appreciate, the irony.