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The Rosenbergs, Always

April 15, 2009

By Theodore Dalrymple

A recent story in the Guardian confirmed my suspicion of a lingering liberal indulgence toward the former Soviet Union. Headlined ORPHANED BY THE STATE, it consisted of an interview with Robert Rosenberg, the younger son of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, executed by electric chair in 1953 for spying on behalf of the Soviet Union.

Robert was then six, and surely anyone with the most minimal human feeling must sympathize deeply with his account of his bewilderment at the time. The interviewer, Joanna Moorhead, tells us that she had tears in her eyes as he related the story, thereby imparting an element of kitsch to the proceedings.

Robert and his older brother Michael were eventually adopted by a childless couple, whose name—Meeropol—they now bear. Their childhood was happy; paradoxically, it might have been less happy, or more emotionally confused, had their real parents been imprisoned for a long time instead of executed, for then their adoption might have proven less whole-hearted.

It is hardly surprising that Robert Meeropol, now a lawyer, should have mounted a campaign against the death penalty; you wouldn’t have to be Sigmund Freud to understand why. And again, not surprisingly, Meeropol does not accept that his real parents betrayed him by involving themselves in such activities in the first place, or by refusing to inform on others once arrested. On the contrary, he was proud of them for having stuck up for what they believed in, even going to their deaths for it.

At the end of the interview he says that his parents gave him and his brother Michael “a life in which we can stand up and be ourselves and do the things we believe in.” Earlier, he had drawn a parallel between what his parents did and other people who, even today, commit acts of civil disobedience to further a cause they believe in.

It’s Moorhead’s neglecting to ask Meeropol what he thought of his parents’ cause that makes me suspect her of secret sympathy with the Soviet Union. For suppose that the subject of the interview had been the orphan of a couple executed for spying for the Nazis: would the interviewer then have let the question of what they believed in go without comment?

This is not the place to argue whether the communists or Nazis were worse (for what it is worth, I think the Nazis were worse, but I also respect the Johnsonian view that there is no disputing the precedence of a louse and a flea). What is clear is that Julius and Ethel Rosenberg supported in theory and aided in practice an ideology and a state that they should have known was responsible for some of the worst oppression and mass murder in history.

In its print edition, the Guardian chose to highlight Robert’s statement, “my parents gave me and Michael a life in which we can stand up and be ourselves,” as a callout, thereby forging an unlikely alliance between Stalinism and psychobabble. Whether standing firm for one’s convictions is a good or bad thing depends on what those convictions are. A monstrous cause is not any the less monstrous because people are ready to die for it; if the history of the twentieth century should have taught us anything, it’s that.

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