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July 2003   Roderick beaman
Joseph McCarthy And The Rosenbergs, The Vagaries Of Myth By Roderick Beaman


By: Roderick Beaman

Two fiftieth anniversaries have recently passed with some fanfare - that of the Army-McCarthy hearings and the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg for espionage. Both are associated with each other in the public and media perception, when in fact, they have little that connect them. The misinformation afoot is astonishing.

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were convicted of passing crucial atomic secrets to the Soviets that helped them develop the atomic bomb. They were arrested in 1950, tried, sentenced to death and executed June 19, 1953. They left two sons who have understandably worked to clear their parents' names. The New York Times aptly observed that the Rosenbergs were less guilty than the government alleged but not as innocent as they maintained. The Times less than aptly observed, it was part of the McCarthy hysteria that gripped the country at the time. It wasn't. Ethel Rosenberg was likely only peripherally involved in the conspiracy, if at all, but the government indicted her, along with her brother, Morton Sobell, David Greenglass and others. The government believed that there was no way that Julius would allow his innocent wife to be killed along with himself, orphaning their two sons. They must have underestimated the ideological commitment of the Rosenbergs. The prosecution was done during the Truman administration under the direction of FBI and Joseph McCarthy had very little to do with it. I have strong doubts about the propriety of prosecuting one person in order to get another but it was not at the behest of Sen. Joseph McCarthy.

The morning of the past June 19 [2003], NPR (wouldn't you know) broadcast a BBC piece about the whole affair. The female narrator spoke about the excesses of Sen. EUGENE McCarthy. She couldn't even get that right. Eugene McCarthy was the peace candidate for the 1968 Democratic Presidential nomination and might want to sue for that mistake.

She interviewed some older man who was, evidently, as ill informed as she was. He called Joseph McCarthy a drunken lout and implied that it was McCarthy who was responsible for all of the anti-communist activity of the time. There is no doubt that Sen. Joseph McCarthy was a drinker but far less so than many other congressional figures including Christopher Dodd and Ted Kennedy, yet they are never referred to in those terms. And, McCarthy certainly knew about the Rosenberg case but was just a minority member of the Senate sub-committee at the time. Even later, as the chairman of that same committee, when the Republicans took over the Senate on the coat tails of Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1953, McCarthy's power was legislative and not executive. The entire focus of McCarthy's hearings was communist infiltration of the government, especially the State Department and later the Army. There may have been some overflow into other matters but that is always the case in any investigation. Investigators go where the facts lead them.

The interviewee blathered about how all anyone has to do is label another person as a communist and it ends the debate. It is true that some labels end debates but 'communist' isn't one of them. The labels that end debates are 'fascist', 'bigot', 'racist' and 'McCarthyite'. The reader should compare his own gut reaction to all of those labels. It's 'McCarthyism' that conjures up all sorts of fearsome images.

Another thing that amazes me is how casually 'hysteria' is thrown around. In fact, it was anti-McCarthy hysteria that was operational. William F. Buckley once observed that he never heard McCarthy say anything that even came close to matching the vile things that were said about him. From the media, you would think that people were spying on each other and turning them in and that we lived in a near Stalinist state. It was not true.

Roy Cohn served as McCarthy's attorney and had helped prosecute the Rosenbergs. Because of his work on those cases, he has been relentlessly vilified along with McCarthy. As it turned out, Cohn was a Jewish homosexual, an unfortunate situation but the media have been as merciless on Cohn as they were on McCarthy. What they always overlook is that Robert Kennedy also served as McCarthy's counsel on that subcommittee. Also, they ignore the deep relationship that existed between the Kennedys and McCarthy. Joe McCarthy was a frequent guest at Hyannisport and Papa Joe Kennedy wanted one of his daughters to marry him. JFK himself once walked out of a meeting at Harvard where a group was trying to smear him. He would not tolerate it, he admired the man so.

In later life, that relationship almost doomed Kennedy's presidential prospects when New York State's Liberal Party nearly withheld its endorsement of Kennedy in the 1960 election. The vote on the Liberal line won New York for Kennedy. A loss in New York could have swung the whole election to Nixon.

McCarthy's tragedy was in calling communists exactly what they were and the Rosenbergs were doing everything they could to destroy us. So the Rosenbergs are victims and McCarthy a villain. Such are the vagaries of myth.

"Published originally at : republication allowed with this notice and hyperlink intact."

Roderick Beaman is a published poet, has composed a blues song and written an, as yet, unpublished novel dealing with the abuse of government power to wreak personal revenge. He is a new columnist for Ether Zone.

He can be reached

Published in the July 1, 2003 issue of Ether Zone. Copyright 1997 - 2003 Ether Zone.