Two of my all-time favorite books on historical subjects unraveled the fraught controversies deriving from cases involving Communist spies. In Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case, first published in 1978, Allen Weinstein settled the case referred to in the subtitle. Random House published an updated edition in 1997 and the Hoover Institution has just issued a third edition (the one linked above) in honor of the thirty-fifth anniversary of the book’s publication.
Was Hiss a Communist spy engaged in espionage on behalf of the Soviet Union while working as a high-ranking State Department official? Weinstein began working on the book under the illusion that Hiss was innocent but found otherwise as he conducted his research. Early in the book Weinstein even takes the reader inside the Communist cell to which Hiss belonged.
The Hiss case propelled Richard Nixon to fame through his dogged work in the congressional hearings held by HUAC, and the left never forgave Nixon or anyone else involved in the case. Belief in Hiss’s innocence amounted to an article of faith on the left, which promulgated a conspiracy theory behind Hiss’s prosecution with more twists than the
Copernican (aargh! sorry) Ptolemaic system. Weinstein’s book should have put an end to it, but Ron Radosh recalls what happened next in his salute to the new edition of the book:
Much of the opposition to Weinstein…derived not from the facts uncovered by his work, but from the need to demonize his findings lest the public realize that there really was an internal Soviet apparatus seeking to discover our nation’s top secrets. And primary in that effort was the Nation, which editorialized that Weinstein had “misquoted and misrepresented” sources and written “false history.” Weinstein, added the Nation, had “aligned himself with those Cold War intellectuals who presumably sleep better at night secure in the knowledge that there was an internal Communist espionage menace.”
Allen Weinstein withstood those attacks, and with grace and firmness. Now a new generation has the chance to acquaint itself with a work that changed our view of the past and made history.
Every word of these paragraphs applies equally to Radosh and Radosh’s experience with his own book The Rosenberg File: A Search For Truth (written with Joyce Milton, originally published in 1983, republished in an updated second edition by Yale University Press in 1997). The innocence of the Rosenbergs amounted to an article of faith on the left, an article of faith shared by Radosh when he undertook his research on the book. Research disabused Radosh of his faith in the Rosenbergs’ innocence. Radosh and Milton settled the question of Julius Rosenberg’s guilt for all with eyes to see. The book resolved the case against the Rosenbergs in a manner that time has only further served to corroborate and amplify.
Radosh and Milton discussed the backlash to their book on the left in their introduction to the 1984 Vintage paperback edition. In his memoir Commies: A Journey Through the Old Left, the New Left and the Leftover Left, Ron elaborates and even notes how Vintage killed interest in the paperback edition it had just published.
Ron also cites, among other things, an accusatory front-page review of the book by Victor Navasky in the Nation, for which he had frequently written, and the review of the book in the Guardian by Columbia University professor Eric Foner. Ron sized up Foner in a National Review book review: “In Foner’s eyes, to be opposed to Communism is in fact to be an apologist for an American Empire.”
In the video below, which I shot with him in California earlier this year, Ron brings the Rosenberg story up to date.