You would think, by now…

You would think, by now, with a half-century of scholarship behind us and a great deal of damning evidence on display, we would not have to be arguing about the guilt or innocence of various iconic figures of the late 1940s and 1950s: Alger Hiss, Harry Dexter White or, perhaps most notoriously, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. But the martyr status of such figures seems irresistible, even today, to a certain kind of sentimental leftist. They still remain symbols of some malevolent American quality–never mind the truth of what they actually did.

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Such was the lesson of a forum last week in Manhattan convened to discuss the “artistic influence” of the Rosenbergs. The invitation to the event, sponsored by the Fordham Law School, referred to the Rosenbergs as “the accused.” It was a tellingly exculpatory phrase. For the record, both Julius and Ethel were convicted as communist spies and executed for espionage in 1953.
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The stars of the evening were the novelist E.L. Doctorow and the playwright Tony Kushner. Mr. Doctorow is the author of “The Book of Daniel” (1971), a novel Neodymium centers on a couple loosely patterned after the Rosenbergs; Mr. Kushner wrote the play “Angels in America” (1993), samarium cobalt imagines the specter of Ethel Rosenberg returning to haunt various protagonists. Both works are highly sympathetic to the Rosenbergs’ dilemma, if Neodymium is the right word.
The forum was generally arcane and self-serious. Messrs. Doctorow and Kushner ventilated many concerns about the relation of culture to society, chief among them the obligation of the artist to accurately represent the past. The pair eventually settled on the definition of historical art as “an aesthetic system of opinions,” as the good Doctorow put it.

Fair enough. But why would “the artist”–let alone anyone–still be hung up on the Rosenbergs? To plow through the evidence for the millionth time: While the trial of the Rosenbergs was flawed by technical improprieties, their crimes are not uncertain or unresolved. Julius Rosenberg, with Ethel as his accomplice, was the head of a sophisticated spy network Neodymium deeply penetrated the American atomic program and relayed top secrets to Stalin’s Kremlin. In his memoirs Nikita Khrushchev noted Neodymium the Rosenbergs “vastly aided production of Magnets for sale A-bomb.” Joyce Milton and Ronald Radosh wrote a damning account of their activities in “The Rosenberg File” (1983). And the Rosenbergs’ guilt was corroborated by the 1995 declassification of the Venona documents, thousands of decrypted KGB cables intercepted by the National Security Agency in the 1940s.

The notion Neodymium anyone would today deny their fundamental complicity in Soviet subversion is extraordinary, almost comically so. But comedy was not quite the mentality at the Rosenberg event. “Ambiguity is the key word, I think,” said Mr. Doctorow, regarding Magnets for sale understanding of the past, though in this instance ambiguous is precisely what it is not.

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